'Trumbo': A Lesson in Patriotism
SHOW INFORMATION: Through September 28. Weds at 7:30PM (Pay What You Can); Thurs at 7:30PM ($15.00); Fri at 8PM ($25.00); Sat at 2:30PM ($19.00); Sat at 8PM ($30.00); Sun at 2:30PM ($22.00). Students with ID $12.00 all shows. 410.722.4900 or www.repstage.org.
◊◊◊◊ out of five. 1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission. Mild language and sexual themes.
It has the potential to be pretty boring, if you think about. Basically, it is play about a man most of us have never heard of, about a time long ago in an America that doesn't exist anymore, with a content made up mostly of recited correspondence, as told through the filter of a loving son. Add to that one set and no costume changes, and on paper, at least, it sounds like what has become a staple in regional theatres - a budget friendly intellect-fest dressed up to resemble an evening of theatre. But, of course, if you know anything of RepStage, you know that "rote regional theatre" isn't their game - what is on paper isn't ever what you get. You get a lot more bang for your buck. And so, it is with great pleasure that I heartily recommend Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, which opened recently at their black box space at Howard Community College in Columbia. The play continues through September 28.
The story is that of Hollywood writer Dalton Trumbo, he of "The Hollywood Ten" - a collective of artists who refused to bend to the pressures of Congress during the infamous Red Scare in the 50's where a witch hunt was started to ferret out anyone of fame who might be connected to communism. (Lucy famously stood up this same committee.) Trumbo and his brave colleagues stood up to the scrutiny, refusing to answer, feeling that it was against the Bill of Rights. For their beliefs they were sent to Federal prison - the charge: contempt of Congress - and blacklisted in Hollywood, with the studio heads making sure they were never hired in any capacity as writers. You may not know the name - he even won an Oscar writing under a pen name for, appropriately enough, The Brave Ones - but you probably know his most famous films: Spartacus, Exodus and Roman Holiday. Through a series of letters and speeches - some friendly, some fiery, and all witty and wise - Trumbo's story unfolds. Framed by the narration of his son, Christopher, a picture of a passionate, thoughtful, if not cranky and righteously indignant man emerges.
This framework may seem trite - a lot of biographical works are told this way - and in idea, dull. And, truth be told, it could stand a bit of a trim, with some points retread more than twice. But in execution it works wonderfully, helped here by excellent direction and two superb performances. Steven Carpenter has directed Trumbo with a sure hand, careful not to allow it to get overly sentimental or too preachy. And his staging is equally thoughtful, with suggestive projections to set each moment in time, a chair a table and a typewriter, all of which are used to give us time and place, but, like the memories being shared, a certain lack of the concrete. The result is a staging that is both real and dreamlike. Andrew M. Haag, Jr.'s lighting (beautiful, seamless transitions), Neil McFadden's sound (evocative and interesting in its relative sparseness) and Milagros Ponce de Leon's setting (complete with side "screens" that suggest large movie screens and a multipurpose, multilevel staircase), all contribute to this ethereal quality.
Jonathan Watkins' portrayal of the son, Christopher, has exactly the right mix of reverence for a father he clearly loves, humor found in a man most people find abrasive and infuriating, and enough reality that not everything he says about the father is idolatry. Yes, these are functions of the script, written by the real-life Christopher Trumbo, but Mr. Watkins brings all of this to life with a somewhat small role that has him most of the time simply observing. It is nice to see a performance that is so completely involving for both actor and audience delivered so effortlessly.
Nigel Reed, as the titular man of the hour, is superb, bringing a difficult man to life. I have no idea what the real Trumbo sounded like, but I'd venture that Mr. Reed has done his research and is delivering an admiring tribute of a performance. It is clear from the get go that Reed fully understands this man, warts and all, and one can't help but get swept up in the rhetoric and wisdom of this man's words. That he can alternately (and, often, simultaneously) aggravate the be-Jesus out of you and make you feel proud to be an American is testimony to both the power of the performer and the man he is playing. The outrage in his eyes is searing as he recounts all of the hardships he and his family faced because he stood up for his rights. The agony and hurt is palpable as he details the effects of his actions on his innocent children. And the joy and love he was filled with pours forth in heartwarming segments about his home and wife, and a particularly humorous part where he delights in sharing a man's secret with his son.
And so, you may not know who Trumbo was, but he is a man worth spending an hour and half with. In these tough times where Americans are again losing rights in the name of Homeland Security, and especially during this political time with rhetoric and little truth are swirling around us like an informational blizzard, Trumbo reminds us of a history we are dangerously close to repeating. And Dalton Trumbo reminds us what it really means to be an American.
PHOTOS by Stan Barouh: Jonathan Watkins (top) and Nigel Reed (seated); Jonathan Watkins as Christopher Trumbo; Nigel Reed as Dalton Trumbo.