Never has a play about journalism, the presidency and Cold War with Russia seemed more relevant than now. And The Columnist, performed by The American Blues Theater at Stage 773, is all of that and more. In a story that could have easily been set during today’s heated political environment, The Columnist is a scintillating tale of family, power, betrayal and personal struggle.
Written by the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning author David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm, The Columnist is based on real-life journalists Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his brother Stewart Alsop (Coburn Goss). Once a power writing duo, the play begins with Joe, now one of America’s most influential columnists - both feared and beloved, caught in a revealing and compromising position in a Moscow hotel.
That affair and its consequences runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire play as we see Joe battle for power, his ideas on what American exceptionalism entails and how the president (both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) should achieve it no matter the costs. We also see his struggle to keep his private life separate from the illusion he creates for the public.
Johnson is exquisite and brilliant in the role of Joe Alsop and very capably humanizes such a towering political figure of the time.
Joe is a man who loves his country and family with equal and blinding passion but in the rapidly changing world of the 1960’s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his inability to see beyond his own beliefs pushes away those closest to him. He manages to alienate even some of his most ardent admirers and colleagues.
However, despite the growing distance between Joe and his family – his perfectly cast, dutiful and charming wife Susan (played by the equally charming Kymberly Mellen), his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) and his sincere and loyal brother Stewart, what is conveyed even at some of his lowest points is how much they still love him despite his many flaws.
Stewart and Abigail are perhaps two of Joe’s most pivotal relationships. Several key moments come when they both show not only how much they understand him, as well as what drives him, but also their acceptance of the contradiction of his public figure and private life. This understanding and acceptance comes even though they often disagree with his passionate defense of the war as well as his methods of squashing the dissenting views of fellow journalists. Both Goss and Meredith play their roles with such depth and nuance that it’s easy to feel their characters’ compassion for such a complex man.
The ability of Auburn to delve so deeply into these relationships and to keep the plot moving at the fast pace of an intriguing spy novel is impressive. Also, very impressive and effective is the staging and the way several of the more dramatic moments are highlighted, especially during transitions. After several poignant and emotional scenes, having Joe stand in a single spotlight as the darkened set changes behind him is a powerful effect, and whether intended or not, is a reflection of the often-tumultuous changes happening in his life.
The creative team for The Columnist: Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Christopher J. Neville (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alec Long (props design), Sarah E. Ross (production manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Sara Illiatovitch-Goldman (dramaturg), and Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), does an amazing job of enhancing an already powerful script and showcasing as Joe says: “human intercourse at its sublimely ridiculous.”
American Blues Theater’s The Columnist runs through April 1, 2017, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are available in online at americanbluestheater.com.
If you were to take a survey of teenagers and young adults to determine which social issue they’re most interested in seeing addressed onstage, mass shootings would be near the top of the list. Though the kind of incident in which an ideologically fanatical and/or severely mentally ill individual massacres a random group of people is not how the majority of murders occur, or the type of shooting Chicago public school students are most likely to encounter, it is something I’ve found that students have a strong desire to discuss. Of course, discussing something is quite different from discussing it intelligently, and the “conversation” around school shootings is filled with so much nonsense and has so little legislative effect that people have become jaded enough for Heathers: The Musical to exist (and be funny). But that’s where playwright Caitlin Parrish comes in. Working with director Erica Weiss, Parrish has adapted the ancient Greek story of Antigone into a new play which not only allows its characters to be complex and intelligent, but is an interesting story in its own right, and worthwhile for adults to see during a public performance.
The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was one who sacrificed her life by defying her uncle Creon to give her treacherous brother a proper burial. The one imagined by Jean Anouilh in 1944 switched her motivations so rapidly that Anouilh’s Creon excused himself by saying she simply wished to be martyred and did not care what principle she ostensibly died for. Parrish’s Antigone, named Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan), has no desire to sacrifice herself at all. The favorite child of a widowed Republican senator running for re-election as a moderate, high school senior Sophie has just cast her vote in her first primary election when shots ring out at her school. Upon learning that her brother, Ben (Matt Farabee), was the killer and concluded his massacre in suicide, her first thought is that she hopes his body hasn’t been left alone, and her second thought is to hope the media does not release his name until the polls are closed. Sophie has made supporting her father’s career her purpose in life, and is deeply disappointed in Ben for what she perceives as a calculated attempt to kill their family socially, along with his more direct victims. In this version, he is buried quickly, in an unmarked grave outside of town, but Sophie is troubled at how easily her father, Ryan (Coburn Goss), and sister, Chloe (Becca Savoy), join everyone else in writing him off as evil.
Sophie’s discomfort increases when her father declares that he wants teachers to be armed, and implies he would have killed Ben himself had he known what he was planning. She’s also blindsided by how suspicious her classmates are of her—to have not known Ben was a psychopath means she must either have been stupid or been covering for him, and they know she’s not stupid. As her father’s plan to rebuild his public image as Ben’s most prominent surviving victim proves surprisingly successful, Sophie finds herself disagreeing with him on the wisdom of widespread access to firearms. He claims that she is simply trying to avoid acknowledging what Ben was so he won’t reflect poorly on her, but Sophie believes whatever was wrong with Ben isn’t as easily addressed or as relevant to any other mass shooting as cracking down on guns.
Parrish’s script sometimes strays close to letting characters speechify, but generally, she motivates their responses quite well. The nine-member ensemble all acquit themselves marvelously, with Cygan expertly managing the difficult task of keeping a somewhat objectionable and high-handed protagonist clever and active enough to maintain the audience’s interest. Higher on the sympathy scale is Savoy’s sardonic Chloe, who, as a lesbian from a Republican household, had relied more upon the school than her family for a social network, and is more upset by having that taken from her. Goss’ senator is no caricature, but he doesn’t display the same level of conflict over what to do with Sophie as most Creons. His claim that he specifically is needed in Washington and he therefore must be willing to sacrifice his family seems to have little basis, but the playwright allows him to sound reasonable despite disagreeing with him.
The school, too, is host to a wide array of richly developed characters. Stephanie Andrea Barron plays Sophie’s friend Janette, who is from a far less-comfortable background and already had mechanisms for coping with violence; her boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd) never liked Sophie in the first place, perhaps saw her as a rival, and is the kind of person who displays his books so everybody can be impressed by what he’s reading (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me). Greg (Ty Olwin) is a profoundly hurt friend of a victim who finds the Martins unspeakably vile, while Brianna (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a survivor whose brief appearance in a video at the beginning of the play instantly establishes an unsettling tension. It was wise of Parrish to grant the chorus so much individuality—the community feels much more authentic when its differences can be acknowledged, and the play has a heart which is sometimes missing in modern remountings of Greek tragedies. Representing her and Weiss’s own generation are a teacher and a newscaster played by Kristina Valada-Viars, one of whom, being in her mid-thirties, declares herself too old to lead the cause of gun control, and the other of whom outright admits she has been faking her routine shock and grief for a while.
Courtney O’Neill’s set design contains a nod to what the Athenian theatre is supposed to have looked like in the time of Sophocles, but it also allows room for Joseph A. Burke’s projections. Ben appears in the form of a vapid video diary he kept which endlessly frustrates the other characters by providing very little help in figuring out his motivations, but his posthumous presence on social media becomes a major recurring plot point. Parrish used the premise of Antigone, but since the point of the play is to make teenagers feel empowered, one can see long in advance that it’s not a tragedy. Parrish and Weiss also aren’t shy about using the play to advocate for stricter gun regulation, or possibly elimination, but the context of Steppenwolf’s encouragement of discussion and feedback prevents this from feeling propagandistic, and they present a reasoned argument with respect for the other side. Based on the differences between how Goss and Valada-Viars’s characters are represented, they seem harder on themselves, which, when ninety percent of the public supports stricter background checks and is unable to move Congress, gun-regulation advocates perhaps ought to be.
One of the most encouraging things about this production is that there exist people who understand the myriad viewpoints that exist surrounding mass shootings and respect young peoples’ experiences and concerns. Acknowledgement isn’t progress in itself, but it is a precondition to progress that is often lacking, and Weiss’s cast display genuine empathy. This show isn’t meant to condescendingly educate teenagers about themselves; it’s a mirror held up to the people most effected by an issue, and for them and everyone else concerned about mass shootings, The Burials is highly recommended.
Public performances of The Burials are on October 14 at 7:30 pm, October 15 at 3:00 pm, and October 22 and 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted Ave, Chicago. For ticket information, see Steppenwolf.org.
Prepare to be taken on a journey with Timeline Theatre at their production of "Chimerica." Directed by Nick Bowling, "Chimerica" is an epic saga of a play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. While a solid three hours of theater may be discouraging for some, this play makes it well worth the time.
Spoiler alert, "Chimerica" is a story about Chinese-American relations, not Chicago. That said, John Culbert's stage design addresses it pretty head-on. One side of the stage is an ironically vintage New York City apartment, a wide gulf separates it from a shabby Beijing tenement. A Macbook sits on the coffee table of the American apartment, a well-known symbol of strife between these two worlds.
Lucy Kirkwood's play makes its American debut at Timeline. It is the story of a photo journalist, Joe Schofield, who took the famous picture of a man standing in front of a tank during the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. We catch up with Schofield (Coburn Goss) in 2012 as he tries to persuade his magazine editor to do a story about the Tank Man 23 years later. Joe's kept a long-time friendship with a professor in Beijing, Zhang (Norman Yap), who is the story's window into Chinese life. Joe falls in love with largely uninvolved marketing expert, Tessa (Eleni Pappageorge) who's on a mission to "figure out" the Chinese for a credit card company. Joe becomes determined to track down the man he accidentally made famous, and in the process, a global chase ensues.
There are a ton of characters in this play. Some more consequential than others. Nick Bowling has assembled a very talented cast of Asian-American actors on which the moral backbone of this story hinges. In fact, there's not a bad performance in this play.
One could dissect the themes of this show for hours, but for the sake of brevity, we won't. What is immediately fascinating is that this is a story told from the mindset of someone caught in the middle. It's a story about how America and China are becoming more alike as well as their inherent differences. It’s a story about what is actually dictating "free press" in America. It’s a story about how foreign countries see American politics, particularly Hillary Clinton. It's also a story with great heart. Lucy Kirkwood is not just delivering a geo-political thesis, but also a compassionate look at the lives of ordinary people. At times this very-right-now drama can seem to go on and on, but in the end it adds up to a very bittersweet conclusion and a lot to take home and unpack.
Through July 31st at Timeline Theatre. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773-281-8463.
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