Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

A shorter version was published in The Daily Record February 22, 2019

As pretty much everyone knows by now, one photograph on Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page is awful: a white young man in blackface next to another person in full Klan robes and hood. Although Northam has given fuzzy explanations for how that photo may have gotten there or whether he was either of the figures it depicts, it is hard to doubt that he had something to do with the photo being on that page, especially in light of his undergraduate campus nickname “Coonman.” Predictably it has led to calls for him to step down.

Should he?

Lili Loofbouro of Slate has done a deep and perceptive dive into the image itself and what it signifies. “A yearbook page was a pre-Facebook way to present yourself as you wished to be seen…. Yearbooks are as aspirational as they are commemorative,” she points out. The image was situated with three other images on a page, each presenting a different face of Northam: “There’s a straight-on suit-and-tie portrait: serious, sincere. There’s the cowboy hat photo, leg up, shirt partly unbuttoned. There’s [a photo with a Corvette] with an easygoing Northam leaning against it in the shade. The elements this particular yearbook subject wished to convey are pretty legible: He wished to be considered a serious man, but also a country boy, but also a fun car guy, but also … and here we falter, because it’s hard to guess at what exactly the racist picture meant to this well-rounded self-fashioner.”

Loofbouro concludes, though, with a canny guess about the intent. “The other photos on that page confirm him as serious, dreamy, outdoorsy. I suspect the final photo was there to round out the portrait of the physician as a young rascal. The response was supposed to be OMG I can’t believe he did that! This guy’s flouting the PC powers that be and having fun doing it. He’s taking a risk!” There wasn’t much risk, though, Loofbouro notes, because the powers that be generally do their bit to support “the suburban white boys whose future everyone protects.” In this reading, Northam becomes just another Justice Kavanaugh, practitioner of “toxic homosociality” with privileged peers.

The thing is, though, this doesn’t square with what else we have been told of the man. Two sentences from Northam’s campaign website[1] are particularly telling. “Ralph grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended local public schools. When his school desegregated, many families sent their children elsewhere—but not the Northams. Ralph’s called his parents’ decision to continue to send him to integrated schools ‘one of the best decisions of my life.’” Nor does it square with what we know of his career, that he served in the U.S. Army for eight years, rising from second lieutenant to major, had a distinguished career in military medicine, was chief neurological resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, taught medicine and ethics, and volunteered for 18 years at a hospice for terminally ill children.

This story differs dramatically from the career of self-aggrandizement Kavanaugh pursued, a career notable principally for its devotion to the interests of the wealthy and reactionary, exactly what the accusations concerning his past might have suggested.

At a minimum, the honor, idealism, empathy, and racially integrationist ethos suggested by Northam’s history tell us that he runs with the hares at least as much as he hunts with the hounds. The notorious photo signaled to a coterie of racist classmates that he was one of them – but his life suggests that there was much more to Northam than that.

Something similar could of course be said of Bill Clinton or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, men whose public support for women’s causes did not turn out to preclude private sexually abusive behavior.[2] But the sexual predations of each of these individuals are accused of appears to have lasted well into their maturer years, while at present, the 1984 photo (Northam would have been about 25) and a contemporaneous blackface Michael Jackson enactment seem the most recent racist behavior by the Governor. Moreover, while Northam’s blackface performances were separately characterized as “painful” (and justly so) by three different African American commentators I saw,[3] these comments betrayed nothing like the degree of hurt we have good reason to believe Clinton’s, Weinstein’s, and Cosby’s behavior inflicted.

Were all our behavior and thoughts held up to a similar scrutiny, most of us would probably turn out to have spent some time with hares and some time with hounds in one hunt or another, at one time or another. Few of us are so internally consistent that our former behavior matched our ideals at the time, and even fewer whose former behavior perfectly matches our present ideals. What matters more is how injurious the inconsistency is, and also how current, because most of us grow wiser and kinder as experience and exposure to the world shape our views.

There is probably much more information coming about the Northam affair. But in light of what is known at this point, it seems premature to call for his head.

________________

[1]. Quoted in https://ballotpedia.org/Ralph_Northam#cite_note-2 , accessed February 7, 2019. The original website is now defunct.

[2]. Several of Bill Clinton’s actions in support of women and their causes are listed here. Harvey Weinstein’s long and public support of feminist causes is chronicled here. Bill Cosby’s well-known philanthropies included a $20 million donation to Spellman College, a historically black women’s college.

[3]. Senator Kamala Harris used the term; both host Gail King and guest Dwandalyn Reese used the term on CBS This Morning on February 7, 2019; also Harmeet Kaur, a commentator of color, of CNN did so.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Don’t Miss MISS SAIGON at the Kennedy Center

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Don’t Miss MISS SAIGON at the Kennedy Center

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com December 18, 2018

There are few entertainments as popular as Miss Saigon (36 million attendees worldwide since it premiered on London’s West End in 1989), and few that have occasioned as much controversy. Despite all that popularity, this reviewer had happened never to see the show until the current national tour surfaced this last week at Washington’s Kennedy Center. Miss Saigon‘s reputation for controversy had preceded it, however, and I was on the lookout for offensiveness. But what I saw was a well-honed crowd pleaser with spectacular stagecraft, excellent singing, a few catchy tunes, and a compelling plot. Some of the provocations complained of in earlier productions are no longer in evidence. In other instances, I would dispute that the material was ever objectively offensive. I’ll discuss all this below, but first, some basics.

Elemental Story

When artists in different media continually return to one story, we can be pretty certain there is something powerful and elemental about it. Puccini told the tale here before in Madame Butterfly, the tragic story of a Western military man and an Asian lover and the child they conceive. It is not insignificant that Butterfly was itself a reworking of a stage play, which in turn was adapted from a short story based on an 1887 novel. Miss Saigon, as is well known, moves the tale from late 19th Century Japan to the end of the Vietnam War. The resituated setting gave the show’s creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (the Les Misérables team) scope to explore additional concerns: war, prostitution, international boundaries, war orphans, and the history of the Vietnam conflict. Boublil and Schönberg take full advantage of this opportunity. In today’s environment, the show’s harsh focus on international boundaries, on the peril they pose to the excluded, and on humanitarian efforts to relieve that peril, seems especially poignant. But the heart of the story remains the tragedy of the Asian lover left behind.

With that said, what about the controversies?

No More Yellow-Face

I observed above that some of them are no longer applicable. In the original London and New York productions, there was much unhappiness over the white actor Jonathan Pryce donning prostheses and yellow-face to take on the role of the Engineer, so much so that when America’s Actors’ Equity refused to sanction Pryce for the role on Broadway, producer Cameron Mackintosh canceled the show, and only brought it back after Actors’ Equity relented. Since those original productions, however, all Engineers, including Concepción, have been of Asian heritage. Likewise, in the lovely number The Wedding Ceremony, the original production reportedly had the background chorus of bargirls singing nonsense syllables rather than authentic Vietnamese lyrics; that too has been fixed.

No Fair Blaming the Victim

No Appropriation

There has also been a palpable revulsion expressed by various persons of color, particularly those of Asian heritage, at – well, at what, exactly? I have now read through five separate critiques of this nature, none of them descending from very high and abstract levels of generality. I think what they mean to convey is that white theater-creators playing to a largely white audience and dealing somewhat inaccurately (for instance the nonsense lyrics) with largely Asian subject-matter and in the process foregrounding white characters – and in the same process not telling many other Asian stories – makes these commentators uncomfortable and/or offends them. These comments are sometimes coupled with complaints about “appropriation.”

No Fetishizing

Some of these comments complain about “fetishizing” Asians and particularly Asian women. This is another term with somewhat indefinite meanings. However, to the extent “fetishizing” means prominently featuring scantily-dressed Asian bargirls gyrating to the music in bars or sparkly Asian chorus girls in the Engineer’s big song, The American Dream, a Vegas-y production number, I can only say, that, equipped with a conventional straight male gaze, I did not find such tawdry spectacles a turn-on, and I don’t believe I was meant to. There is a dramatic distance from the depicted encouragement of lust which differs from similar spectacles in, for instance, Cabaret. We are not meant to buy into it at any level.

Some Bathetic Lyrics

My own critiques would go to more mundane matters, for instance the weakness in some of the lyrics. Take the otherwise moving song Bui Doi, about the illegitimate children of American soldiers left behind, which wears out its welcome by the fourth iteration of the bathetic description of them as “conceived in hell, and born in strife.” Or the thrice-repeated characterization of them as “living reminders of the good we failed to do.” Come on, exactly what unachieved good are they reminding us of? Winning the war (the principal good the American effort unsuccessfully pursued)? I don’t think anyone has ever needed to be reminded of that. Marrying the moms? If that were what’s meant, it would require a lot more explanation than an offhand phrase can provide, because the couplings of soldiers and prostitutes in wartime are not ordinarily the stuff from which actual marriages could grow. All that is really meant here, I think, is that we now have a moral responsibility to protect the children. And for that, the phraseology is inapt; the children are not “reminders” of that responsibility; they are its objects.

The “forest” is that this is an excellent contribution to the canon of operatic musicals, richly melodramatic, beautifully acted and sung, with outstanding production values (yes, there is a helicopter!), and intelligent about the effects of war, and – notwithstanding many of the comments I’ve mentioned above – intelligent too about the particular clash of cultures that the war in Vietnam effectuated.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Scena Theatre

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at Scena Theatre

Nana Ingvarsson and Dina Soltan

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 7, 2018

A Woman of No Importance (1893) is surely the least-often produced of Oscar Wilde‘s four comedies, and for good reason. In it, Wilde stages a conflict between a tolerance, if not admiration, of flippant and witty libertinage among a gentry ostensibly committed to strict sexual morality, and on the other hand a Puritanism (the characters’ own label for it) which takes that strict morality seriously. But Wilde commits the dramatically unforgivable sin of siding with the Puritans. In so doing he ignores the evidence not only of his own sexually-liberated life but of what he puts on the stage in this very play, forgetting that, as Billy Joel put it, “the sinners are much more fun.” It’s one thing in this kind of comedy to give the nominal villain a bit of a come-uppance, but another entirely to show him repudiated with heavy-breathing moral condemnation, and to revel in the way the virtuous characters break away not only from the supposed villain but apparently from his entire social circle. Northrop Frye long ago posited that at the conclusion of a comedy, society is knit back together, and as many characters at possible, including some or all who had earlier misbehaved, participate in the wedding dance. Perhaps Wilde’s Victorian audience truly rejoiced at a denouement which contradicted these principles, but it is hard to ask a modern audience to react in this way.

Rather, what a modern audience sees is the triumph of an unhealthy fetishization of premarital chastity, reinforced by uncharitable shunning and accompanied by gratuitous and injurious self-sacrifice. This becomes apparent in the revival currently being given the play by Washington’s Scena Theatre in a black box theater at The Atlas (convenient to Baltimore audiences, not far from the southern end of the BW Parkway). The production boasts of many innovations, some of which will be mentioned below, but in the matter of the grating denouement it follows Wilde with iron-jawed determination and adds no grace notes to soften it in any way. Lord Illingworth (Nanna Ingvarsson) is the chief libertine of the piece; twenty years before the action of the play, before he became a rich and influential man, he had seduced and then refused to marry the woman now known as Mrs. Arbuthnot (Sara Barker), leaving her with a son Gerald (Jen Bevarelli). In consequence, she had abandoned him to raise their son under an assumed family name to hide the “shame.” In the intervening years, Illingworth, in speaking style at least a true Wilde protagonist, has become a spouter of aphorisms that invert conventional views, a cynic, and a pillar of society. Nor has he lost his womanizing ways, being willing to dive into the shrubbery with society hussy Mrs. Allonby (Dina Soltan) (as shown above) and to accept her challenge to him to flirt with a virginal young American visitor Hester Worsley (Moriah Whiteman). It can also be argued that he goes to extraordinary lengths to attempt to make sincere amends to all whom he has offended, but he gains no traction with any effort to do so, and ends the play quite repudiated.

Apart from these design flaws, A Woman of No Importance is a typical Wilde comedy. What other playwright, for instance, would have a character utter a line like “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox-the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”? What other playwright would give his characters such ebullient flippancy at the expense of conventional morality – even if later on Wilde turns inexplicably heavy-handed and hard-breathing in defense of that selfsame morality?

One might expect that, in approaching a play like this, one with enough rough edges of its own, Scena and its director Robert McNamara, having decided not to blink at presenting these rough edges, would then leave well enough alone, and deliver the show with consistent straightforwardness, so as to maximize the Wilde-ness of the show. But that was not the choice that was made here. There were at least three decisions to jazz it up and stage it in a way that Wilde would not have anticipated.

First, as parentheticals above suggest, this production features an all-female cast. There was no reason stated for this course, either in the program or in any publicity material I have seen, and in this instance the reason is not easy to discern. One might, for instance, expect such casting in a production that was interrogating an existing classic from a feminist perspective; here, apart from its exaltation of Victorian Puritanism, which in my book was anti-feminist, the play is arguably quite feminist in its rejection of any effort to dismiss a woman as “of no importance.” One might equally expect all-female casting in an attempt to subject a classic to a queer critique or just a queering, such as an all-female As You Like It presented by Baltimore’s Center Stage a few years back. But I see no evidence of that in this production. Indeed, one of the reasons to like this show is that Ingvarsson gives us such a very conventionally male Illingworth. Not that we are ever induced to forget that it is a female actor performing the role; this is no male impersonator. But the whole persona Ingvarsson conveys somehow swaggers and blusters past the evidence of our senses, and we simply could not care less about the incongruity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the play before, so I have no standard of comparison, but from my perspective Ingvarsson sets a very high bar any future Illingworth will need to surmount to satisfy me. The other five male roles seemed more gender-disparate, but it made no difficulties.

The second odd choice was resituating the action in Golden Era Hollywood. Again, the reasons why were not readily apparent. We regularly set Shakespeare in what Wilde’s fellow-Victorian W.S. Gilbert dubbed “all centuries but this and every country but his own.” However there are many reasons why, foremost among them, perhaps, that most of Shakespeare’s settings are fantastic constructs anyway, Cloud Cuckoolands of Shakespeare’s own imagination. Shakespeare isn’t going for authenticity, so why should we? But Wilde? In a play in which he critiques contemporary politicians by name and compares the two houses of Parliament? A play which turns on moral scruples and social customs like country house parties which had only limited analogies in the world to which Scena has transported them? What benefit derives from that? Actually, I can partially answer that last rhetorical question: there is the benefit of outstanding period costumes, courtesy of Alisa Mandel. I especially liked Dina Soltan’s glittery black number complete with befeathered hat (pictured above), and if you need an excuse like a change of era and location to evoke that kind of creativity, well, maybe there’s something to be said for excuses. But a lot of my pleasure dissipated among rewritings of the script to include terms like screenwriter, Academy, Directors Guild, and screening room. Moreover, given that there was plenty of identification of the characters and the locale as British, one found oneself wondering whether this was an effort to pass off Hollywood as some kind of suburb of London. Oh, well.

The third choice was to have many of the speeches delivered in a way that surely went against the grain of the way original director H. Beerbohm Tree or most subsequent interpreters have done it. I call this form of delivery “voguing,” after the dance style: striking a fairly angular pose and declaiming one’s lines directly to the audience rather than to the other characters to whom the lines are theoretically addressed. The show emphasized this in the opening, exposition-heavy going by rotating three or four society ladies in a sort of video-game way with appropriate sound-effects for rotating avatars, so that whatever lady had the dialogue was always in front. Perhaps it was felt that the exposition would otherwise be too tedious, the way directors regularly play games with the exposition at the beginning of Henry V, which really is tedious and hard to follow. But Wilde’s dialogue can stand on its own feet (read it if you doubt me). Worse, Wilde’s dialogue is, to a large degree, verbal voguing on its own: taking outrageous, angular verbal stances, like the above-quoted line about a foxhunt. Most directors would – and I would argue this is the correct way to handle it – leave the poses to the lines, and even deliver them in as conventionally conversational a tone as possible. That actually makes them more shocking.

One might think that with all these oddities (one-sex casting, gratuitous setting change, over-the-top declamation of lines that traditionally ought to be banked down for full impact) the overall effect would be catastrophic. But that isn’t the case. As long as one understands that this is an idiosyncratic production, and does not come expecting classic Wilde but rather something new and strange built on the platform of a Wilde play, the evening is actually a lot of fun.

One also has to take it in the context of Scena’s overall thrust. While a Baltimore critic does not come down to Washington all that much, this is at least the fourth Scena show I’ve seen, and all have been impressive in one way or another, including Wilde’s own tragedy Salome and a stark, Trump-era Julius Caesar. Scena does classics and contemporary drama in ways that appeal to the head as well as the gut. And I suspect that the choice to do more of a Wilde fantasia than a Wilde play was as carefully deliberated as any other. Perhaps, because the play is so defective in its conception, the impulse was just to mess with it and see what happens. Even Homer nods – and when Wilde does (as he certainly did here), maybe all bets should be off.

If you go expecting, as it were, wild Wilde, you won’t be disappointed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Jae Yi Photography.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

 

Shedding the Bubble

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

Shedding the Bubble

A slightly shorter version published in The Daily Record December 19, 2018

For a public act, driving my automobile is a surprisingly private thing for me to do. I control my climate, my music, my refreshments. I can make phone calls, hands-free, and speak at the top of my voice with the expectation that only I will hear what’s being said. And while I’m moving, that bubble of privacy is pretty much inviolable. Other drivers and I can make eye contact if it’s physically possible and we both choose, otherwise not. But, like it or not, I have to stop at intersections. And when I do, all bets are off. The intersection is the realm of the beggar with the cardboard sign and the young man with the squeegee. Their missions fail if they cannot breach my bubble and engage with me. So that’s what they try to do.

Unsustainable

For a long time, their importunities never failed to annoy me. My explanation for this instinctive reaction was that these efforts to seize my attention and invade my space were bad manners. I just wanted to be freaking left ALONE. No supplicant ever got a penny out of me, as a penalty for his or her discourtesy in asking for a penny. And then, one day, my reaction became unsustainable.

I was filling up at a gas station, regarding myself as still within the bubble. A vagrant came up to me with a handout request, and I’m sorry to say I snapped at him. He snapped back. I cannot remember precisely what either of us said, but I do know that he said he was desperate and what else did I expect him to do? He didn’t get anything from me; I came away with as many pennies as I started with in my purse. But as I reargued it in my head, I could see the man had a point.

Now, obviously I had previously been over his point before in my head and in discussions with others. My response had always been that I made financial contributions to organizations that supported the welfare of the hungry and the homeless, and that if the man were in need, he should go to them, and leave me out of it. But on reflection this argument no longer measured up to the concrete situation before me.

No Other Immediate Solutions

There are hoops the poor must jump through to access the charities and the government agencies that see to them, and I’m not just speaking of stereotyped heartless bureaucracies, though there are some of those in the mix too. There may be multiple buses a client has to take to get to the shelter; there are usually guaranteed to be long wait periods for inpatient drug treatment and Section 8 vouchers; food pantries are not open round the clock; free clinics may require appointments. One must therefore be organized, foresightful and coherent to access these things. And I’ve been taught since that time that homelessness can make unmanageable the routines upon which a coherent life depends. In short, the odds were pretty good that the man shouting back at me actually did need help that none of the charities I donated to could provide as quickly as he needed it – if at all. Even if my money would go to buy a narcotic fix that would keep him from being in torment, he was most likely in urgent need. And there I was shouting at him.

And even if the need isn’t urgent, it’s probably real enough. Again, consider squeegee men; what are the odds that they undertake their risky, low-margin work without need of some kind driving them?

If I conceded the need was real, then, what of my feeling that there must be more appropriate times and places to ask for help with them?

No Other Intersection

Well, then I had to identify where those more appropriate places would have been. No one would have accosted me in my office or my bedroom or my gym; all of these places had locks on the door or guardians at the gate, and no one seeking a handout would ever reach me there. The only place my life and theirs would likely intersect was at the intersection. For me to say that I could not be solicited there was tantamount to forbidding any solicitation at all, even by those in urgent need.

I concluded that my former stance was untenable.

Since then, public discussion has raised at least two safety issues.

Being Real About Safety

First, in Baltimore, where I live, there has been much concern raised by a recent instance in which a curbside beggar was a stalking horse for a mugger who stabbed and killed a would-be donor. In the wake of that incident, more than one person I’ve chatted with has cited it as a reason never to make donations out the car window. To which my response is: It’s already established that you’re a risk-taker; you’re behind the wheel. Well, your odds of perishing in a traffic accident in the coming year are 1 in 17,625.[1]   Your odds of dying by assault with a sharp object are a paltry 1 in 138,834. And so far as I know, no one else in Baltimore has been mugged while donating to a panhandler. There simply isn’t much increased peril involved.

Second, a former public official pointed out in a letter to the editor that panhandling on the street is made illegal for the safety of the very persons doing the soliciting. And there’s no denying it’s not safe for them. But which of us doesn’t take health risks to satisfy immediate needs? (Smokers and jaywalkers, raise your hands!) And from what I can see, we have a lot of people with basic immediate needs out there. Perhaps no one enforces the law out of respect for poor people’s management of their own risks.

“Undeserving” Poor?

Back in the days when I didn’t let people breach my bubble, I also agonized over whether I should be subsidizing those who sought beggary over more productive ways of earning their daily bread. Effectively, I was employing a nineteenth-century distinction (referenced, for instance, in My Fair Lady) between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. Again, I doubt that the distinction has much bearing when we’re talking about curbside solicitation; it’s such a hard way to raise money most lazy people would eschew it. But assume there are lazy beggars. Since there’s no way to administer an immediate field test of deservingness, a donor must trust. But it’s a no-brainer. A dollar or two through the driver’s window isn’t realistically enough to persuade someone to stay out of the workforce; most likely it only helps stave off some hunger pangs or dull a narcotic craving, or maybe helps someone find shelter for the night.

Pope Francis says we shouldn’t worry about what the money will be spent for, but “always” to give, and when we do, to look the recipient in the eye and touch their hand. Since I came out from behind my bubble, I’ve tried to follow that guidance. In those little one-minute encounters, there have been many touching moments and much laughter. I can recommend it to anyone. This holiday, don’t stop donating to charities that help the poor — but also give yourself the gift of shedding that bubble.

________________

[1] In the published version of this piece, I placed the odds of traffic death as 1 in 77. But that turned out to be one’s lifetime risk. To make the comparison an apples-to-apples one, I needed to place the odds of traffic death in the same time-frame as the risk of stabbing death. I apologize to my readers for the error.

 A Note:

I’d previously talked about related subjects in an earlier post, but that concerned a small change of mind mostly in the context of pedestrian encounters which did not involve the driver’s “bubble” I am concerned with above. After the epiphany described in that earlier post, I did more frequently donate to people who encountered me when we were both on the sidewalk. But the bulk of solicitations that came my way were made when I was behind the wheel, and my change of mind on that is what I’m discussing here.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

The Exemplary Ms. Margolin

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

The Exemplary Ms. Margolin

Published in The Daily Record November 12, 2018

I know it can scarcely be believed now, children, but there once was a time when the federal government actively intervened to protect workers by assuring they were adequately paid. A time when our leaders cooperated in international prosecutions of war criminals, rather than shaking their hands at summit meetings. Even – contain your incredulity! – a time when the federal government aggressively protected the right of women to equal pay and equal opportunity rather than merely paying it lip service.

Possible in the Government

Involved in all of these federal initiatives was Bessie Margolin, the subject of Fair Labor Lawyer, by Baltimore lawyer and author Marlene Trestman. I have written before in this space about lawyers’ ways of living good lives. I have highlighted Hugh L. Clarke, the easy-going Tennessee lawyer who did well while doing good, and was memorialized in Sleepy John Estes’ Lawyer Clark Blues, and I have mentioned Gilbert Roe, Wall Street lawyer who improbably also put his services at the disposal of leading radical spirits of the early twentieth century, and pioneered then-innovative First Amendment thinking. Both of these gentlemen lived their admirable lives in the private sector. Margolin’s professional life, by contrast, was spent almost entirely in the service of the federal government. Now (as one who spent much of his own career litigating against government lawyers but liked most of them), I can attest that such lawyers as a breed usually find creditable ways to spend their careers, but they can do especially great things at times when the government is doing important good work. Margolin was a case in point.

As Trestman recounts, it was Margolin’s good fortune to come of professional age at the very moment the New Deal began and also at the very moment it started to be possible for women endowed with a combination of great talent and extraordinary luck to become prominent official advocates of important legislation, of which the New Deal gave birth to an abundance. And Margolin made herself a candidate for extraordinary luck by virtue of great talent, which put her in the running for roles the legal culture of the time would normally have treated as male preserves. Raised in a New Orleans orphanage, she beat enormous odds to make it to an inferior position on the staff of Yale Law School, where she became a protegee of, among others, future Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, earning a doctorate in law (on top of her Tulane law degree) in the process. Then it was off to Washington, 89 days after Franklin Roosevelt took office.

TVA, FLSA, Nuremberg, Equal Pay

She soon found a way into government, at the newly-formed Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA’s authority to intervene in a marketplace to benefit consumers (by generating power and instituting flood control) was challenged on constitutional grounds by entrenched financial interests. Margolin worked with a high-powered legal team that beat back this and other challenges. Not all New Deal programs survived; Margolin was on the ground floor of one of the successes.

From there she went to the Labor Department, her home for almost all of her career. Another New Deal program was about to be tested there: the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the source of the federal minimum wage, overtime protections, and prohibitions against child labor. Differently from many federal programs, Congress passed this one without giving the administering agency, the Department’s Wage and Hour Division, the authority to promulgate interpretive regulations, meaning that the law, pockmarked with general terms and exceptions to coverage, was destined to be fleshed out in the courts. Whoever was in charge of the Department’s end of that process was foreordained to become, if she was not already, an experienced litigator and appellate advocate. And that person turned out to be Margolin. She would try cases all over the country, supervise a team of lawyers who answered to her nationwide, and argue in every Circuit and before the Supreme Court (27 cases there, with a win-loss record of 24-3). Largely thanks to Margolin, the FLSA remains a key protection for our nation’s workers.

After World War II, Margolin was seconded for a few months to the Nuremberg Tribunals. She drafted the rules for American military tribunals that would govern trials of 185 defendants over two years. It was momentous work, a piece of a civilization-defining event imposing international norms even on those who had acted under sanction of the national laws.

In later years back at the Labor Department, Margolin found herself in the midst of a different civilization-defining fight: enforcing the new Equal Pay Act of 1963. This time, in addition to supervising a hundred cases, she became a leading spokesperson for the Act, making it clear that equal pay and equal opportunity were serious Labor Department priorities.

Not Having It All

Perhaps her passion on this subject (she became one of the founders of the National Organization for Women) was informed by the discrimination she had herself contended with throughout her career, most notably in her determined pursuit of a judgeship, a goal that eluded her. It is likely that her dalliances, most notably with a married boss, known to the FBI and reported in her background investigations, were held against her in a way that a man’s similar behavior would not have been. Whatever the explanation, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson passed on numerous opportunities to elevate her to the bench.

I knew one of her female colleagues mentioned and pictured in Trestman’s book: Beatrice Rosenberg, a lawyer at Justice and the EEOC, one of the few attorneys, male or female, who argued more frequently than Margolin in the Supreme Court. Rosenberg was a close friend of a dear friend of mine, an administrative law judge at a time when there were few female ALJs. The three women had much in common: they were all Jewish, preeminent in legal fields where, when they started out, few women were allowed to compete, and single. That cohort is largely forgotten now. They had close-to-unsung roles in shaping the way the government intervened on behalf of citizens. To capitalize on their limited opportunities to do this, it seems likely they sacrificed the sort of domestic lives they might have preferred.

Tellingly, Margolin was engaged twice: the first, to a fellow law student, was broken off at the threshold of her legal career, and the second, which did not result in a marriage, after her retirement. One suspects these choices were tacit acknowledgements of the difficulties a woman would have had maintaining both a career and a marriage at that time.

Worth It

That said, by Trestman’s account, Margolin had a rich personal life. She dressed sharply, she gambled, she had affairs, she richly enjoyed her time abroad, and she reveled in being a favorite aunt. Coupled with her stellar career, it was a life many lawyers would aspire to.

Details may differ, but there will always be some kind of sacrifice involved in any effort to wield our profession for the common good. If, like Bessie Margolin, one is persistent and lucky, that sacrifice may well pay off.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Big Picture Home Page | Previous Big Picture Column | Next Big Picture Column

‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

‘Not Entirely Honest’ an Understatement in REP Stage’s Obscure But Funny THINGS THAT ARE ROUND

Thais Menendez and Beth Hylton

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 3, 2018

“I’m sensing that you’re not being entirely honest here,” says one character to the other in Callie Kimball’s Things That Are Round. That’s putting it mildly. The two characters in this play, receiving a world premiere performance by Columbia’s REP Stage (after a lengthy development process elsewhere), are constantly lying to each other and to themselves, and thus, indirectly, to the audience. Dubious statements prevent the audience being able to make up its mind about many important things happening throughout the play, either onstage or off, except perhaps in the play’s final moments.

We can be relatively certain of this much: Tetherly, a dentist (Beth Hylton), hires Nina (Thais Menendez) to babysit her four-year-old son Dylan, initiating an increasingly fraught relationship between the two women, based on what may be a series of delusions. How real is Dylan, for instance? Is Tetherly the world’s least entrepreneurial dentist? Is Tetherly really pursuing a doctorate? Does Nina actually have a claimed child of her own, or a husband, or a lover? Does Nina sincerely believe (contrary to what the audience has heard when she delivers a song) she has a ghost of a chance to become an opera singer? While these and similar basic questions about what the characters are doing or why are never fully resolved (nor do they need to be), the debatable and sometimes contradictory answers each character gives to these questions form the basis of a relationship that dramatically and comically changes as the play progresses.

It becomes apparent that at the outset the appropriately-named Tetherly is trapped, revolving around a set of pursuits and obsessions that bring her less and less comfort or happiness. Nina, younger, without clear loyalties or commitments except to being paid, represents freedom to Tetherly, who would like to find a way of getting closer to this intriguing domestic servant without relinquishing the authority of a boss. Given Nina’s restive nature and her penchant for schemes and ripoffs, Tetherly’s desires may prove impossible ever to reconcile. And they probably would be, were Tetherly left to her own devices. But Nina locates a way to break through the stalemate, making it possible, at the end, to classify this often very funny play as a comedy, and something between a love story and a buddy story.

REP Stage is giving it a very impressive maiden voyage. Beth Hylton, well-known to Baltimore audiences, delivers nicely her character’s sometimes hysterical loser-dom without evoking either too much or too little sympathy. And Thais Menendez is great at “talking arrows,” as the stage notes put it – when she does not just withhold, clam up, and allow Tetherly to twist in the wind. The difference in the textures of these performances is exactly what’s needed to make believable the symbiotic needs that draw the characters together despite themselves. Lola B. Pierson’s sensitive direction seems to capture the playwright’s vision precisely, leaving obscure only that which Kimball wanted to have left obscure. (Pierson also wrote Putin on Ice, just recently featured at Single Carrot; her comfort with that show’s high-spirited try-anything comedy makes her affinity with this work seem natural.) I loved Sarah O’Halloran’s composition and sound design featuring classical and classical-sounding music that had been altered to suggest the distorted and/or agitated thinking in the characters’ minds, and Jenny Male’s fight direction which yielded a confrontation at once funny and worrisomely dangerous-looking.

At this exciting moment in American playwriting, the role regional theater has taken on in developing and premiering new work has been a great thing. We need more of it in this region, and REP Stage’s commitment to the process (as in Susan McCully’s All She Must Possess last season) is to be commended. For audiences, stepping away from the tried and true, even into works as disorienting as this sometimes is, can be among the most invigorating theatrical experiences.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photograph. Photo Credit: Kate Simmons-Barth.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

 

How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

How The Assembly Line Ended: SWEAT at Everyman Theatre

From left: Dawn Ursula, Kurt Rhoads, Megan Anderson, Deborah Hazlett

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 29, 2018

Lynn Nottage‘s Pulitzer-winning Sweat, which premiered Off-Broadway five days before the 2016 election and was transferred to Broadway the following year, was hailed by the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era.” Schulman pointed out that the play gives us a deep dive into the anomie of the Rust Belt workers so critical to Trump’s victory. The revival of the play now on display at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre confirms Schulman’s diagnosis, with two caveats: there is almost nothing there about the group’s electoral behavior, other than an articulated sense of pointlessness in voting, and the play ends eight years before the election, when the economic environment was significantly different from that of 2016. By the time the show premiered, the development central to the play’s action, deindustrialization, with all its closed factories and discarded workers with attendant ruination of lives, had already reached an at least temporary climax. Moreover, there had been the financial collapse of 2008, and a recovery based on furthering a conversion of our economy to one based less on manufacturing than on lower-paid services, which factory workers were not well-adapted to provide nor economically able to take on. Sweat focuses instead on the moments, mostly earlier, when the deindustrialization tsunami engulfed manufacturing, with all the profound human wreckage that wave caused. Nottage’s case in point, a Reading, Pennsylvania steel fabrication factory in the year 2000, is already history in 2008, when the play ends, let alone in 2016. If it’s a tale of Trump voters, then, it’s their backstory, not the tale of their votes.

But it’s a great backstory, if not a totally unexplored one. Baltimore audiences last year, for instance. saw the Center Stage production of Dominique Morrisseau’s Skeleton Crew, which premiered around that same time as Sweat, and like Sweat, focuses on the loss of a manufacturing plant and all the livelihoods that depended on it, using some of the same plot devices and symbolism. Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Barbara Ehrenreich, and many others have told the tale more than once in other media. But great minds think alike; there is plenty of room for more than one treatment of this important theme. And Nottage is magnificently up to the task.

She gives us, at the play’s core, three high-spirited factory-worker women: Cynthia (Dawn Ursula), Tracey (Deborah Hazlett) and Jessie (Megan Anderson). As the action begins, times are still good, and they and their fellow workers regularly resort to a tavern presided over by barkeep Stan (Kurt Rhoads) to celebrate birthdays and friendships. Two of the trio, Cynthia and Tracey, are even among the competitors for promotion to a supervisor’s position, which would be an anomaly, as the plant has no history of recruiting supervisors from the shop floor. Good times make even racial harmony achievable, as Cynthia is black while her two besties are white, and the races mingle effortlessly in Stan’s tavern. But we already know from a sort of prologue, in flash-forward, that Cynthia’s and Tracey’s sons will by 2008 have served time because of some still-unidentified common disaster connected in some way with the events of 2000 we are about to witness. In this way, Nottage warns us, if we needed any warning, that this industrial Eden will not end well.

And end badly it does, as Nottage tightens the grip of the catastrophe step by slow step. We all know the historical outlines of the story enough to have a general idea what to expect: management ready to break unions to exact wage and benefits concessions, scab laborers, jobs exported abroad, plant closures, mortgage foreclosures, destitution, opioids. But Nottage renders this familiar tale powerful and surprising.

And comprehensible. And honest. What makes the downfall of this Eden so especially heart-wrenching is the destruction of a vision of the place and the dignity of the manual laborer. That vision viewed jobs as a form of property, as a stake in the employer which the employer was bound to recognize and reward with lifetime employment and a decent retirement thereafter. It is a vision that undergirds the entire self-image of the play’s workers, expressed in various ways at the outset. From the standpoint of American law and 21st-century management, however, the only stake of more than rhetorical significance was that of the investors and lenders of the companies. We witness the frustration and disbelief of the workers as their claim is disregarded with prejudice by management, and we see how destructive of the lives of these workers is the force of their disillusionment, even more than that of their economic privations without regular factory income.

At the same time Nottage is honest enough to show how this vision of jobs as property was historically misused as well by the workers who harbored it, how it justified the resistance of white employees to admitting black ones into their midst, and, at the threshold of the deindustrial revolution we witness, it is being employed to prevent Hispanic workers from gaining a foothold in what had become black and white turf. When we find out the specifics of the event that lands the sons it prison, it proves to pivot on the misuse of that vision.

Nottage is onto a big story, and she gets it right.

In program notes, Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi notes that from the moment he saw the show, “I knew I had to produce it at Everyman.” I suspect that the reason for Lancisi’s instant determination is that he knew immediately when he saw roles perfect for the talents of Anderson, Hazlett and Ursula, members of Everyman’s repertory company. It’s a pleasure to see these three long-term colleagues, very familiar to Baltimore audiences, gobbling up juicy roles together. But then the entire ensemble is strong. Three of them are newcomers to Everyman, and probably to Baltimore audiences. I particularly admired Alejandro Ruiz as Oscar, a plucky Hispanic newcomer to Reading’s industrial scene, determined to be neither shut out from its job market nor morally diminished by the death of the vision that has animated and, it turns out, crushed those who were there before him. Although he represents a clear new ethos, Oscar gets the last line in the play, affirming the best of the solidarity of the bygone workforce.

And of course Lancisi must have seen the fun he would have directing this show. If there was anything he missed in realizing Nottage’s vision, I missed it too.

The sets at Everyman are usually a treat, and this one, courtesy of Daniel Ettinger, is no exception, a beautifully detailed tavern, fully realized, mounted on a turntable that facilitates various other less detailed settings on the verso. A tip of the hat is also owed Lewis Shaw for the choreography of a protracted and really dangerous-looking fight in the late going.

This is definitely one not to miss.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Clinton Brandhagen.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Drinking from a Firehose with STICK FLY at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Drinking from a Firehose with STICK FLY at Fells Point Corner Theatre

From left: JC Payne, Jared Michael Swain, Adrienne Knight, Shelby Sullivan, Barbara Madison Hauck

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 26, 2018

It’s easy to see why Lydia R. Diamond‘s Stick Fly has left critics of two minds. Writing of the 2011 Broadway production (an earlier version of the show premiered in Chicago in 2006), the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout called it “a mess, but a fascinating one.” Charles Isherwood of the New York Times described it as “overstuffed but lively.” And lots of critics have groaned a bit over the melodrama in the play. The critics’ reservations have their roots in various places: the multitude of issues Diamond takes on, the improbably high number of secrets the characters carry, the “well-made play” principles that Diamond has admitted pursuing conflicting with the play not seeming to go anywhere, as Roma Torre of NY1 pointed out. Yet almost every review (save for Hilton Als‘ excoriating takedown in The New Yorker) has admitted to finding the show fascinating.

Add this writer to the “of two minds” faction. My first exposure to the show has been the current Fells Point Corner Theatre revival, directed by Christen Cromwell, and there were moments I felt I was drinking from a firehose, trying to keep up with Diamond’s complicated and at times obscure interplay of racial discourse, class politics, and family melodrama. It is difficult to describe it further without dropping spoilers, but the setup at least can be broached. The play, which takes place in the living room and kitchen, and also on a porch, of the Martha’s Vineyard home of African American neurosurgeon Dr. LeVay (Louis B. Murray), chronicles a weekend when the doctor’s two sons, aspiring novelist Spoon (Jared Michael Swain) and older brother and plastic surgeon Flip (JC Payne), bring home their girlfriends to introduce them to the family. These newcomers are a black entomologist named Taylor (Adrienne Knight), from a less-privileged background than the LeVays’, and white inner city educator Kimber (Barbara Madison Hauck). Helping out is Cheryl (Shelby Sullivan), daughter of the LeVays’ usual domestic servant, filling in for her ill mom. Clearly, in addition to the racial divide between Kimber and the rest, there are multiple social class gradations at play – not to mention certain secrets concerning initially undisclosed relationships among those present (and absent). We see lots of exposition of all this material, and then lots of fireworks as the material proves combustible. So there is lots, perhaps too much, for the audience to keep track of, but also lots to enjoy.

It’s arguable – and I think this was the essence of critic Torre’s point that I mentioned above – that at the end of the play, for all the fireworks, the characters’ lives haven’t changed much, except for the spillage of secrets. That kind of change is not really a requirement, however. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf works fine with an end-situation a lot like the one prevailing at the beginning, and succeeds by virtue of exactly the same kind of middle: a party at which secrets emerge amid sometimes comic verbal bloodshed. This is not to say that Diamond is the same kind of playwright as Albee, but they each make use of the same dynamic. This director and cast do quite a tolerable job of mining this middle-material paydirt. I particularly appreciated Louis B. Murray’s paterfamilias, blustering and patronizing up to the moment an unanswerable revelation silences him; we’ve all known guys like this. And Adrienne Knight as the entomologist/prospective daughter-in-law can go on a lengthy rant for me any time she likes. The characterization that gave me the most to think about was Shelby Sullivan’s version of Cheryl, the temporary help, whose equal opportunity sullenness was perhaps the most challenging portrayal. At any given moment, is she upset about race, class or family issues? Hard to tell; and the trick is probably in keeping it obscure, not making the character too easy to parse or relate to.

Audiences should approach this play, then, and this production, with the expectation that they will not understand all of it, fully grasp any character’s motives or thoughts and/or the playwright’s position on many of the issues she aerates – and that that’s okay. The fun is in just watching it happen.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Trent Haines-Hopper/THsquared Photography.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

SPRING AWAKENING Well-Sung and Well-Performed by Stillpointe

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

SPRING AWAKENING Well-Sung and Well-Performed by Stillpointe

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 14, 2018

For a winner of the Tony for Best Musical (for 2006) and seven other Tonys as well, Spring Awakening had a relatively short Broadway run (fewer than 900 performances), and was widely licensed for performance almost immediately thereafter, a boon to regional and community companies willing to take on the adult subject matter (adolescents coming of age sexually). There have been a number of productions in the greater Baltimore region in recent years, the latest arriving courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre at Area 405.

I suspect most readers are familiar with the show, but for the few uninitiated among you, it is an unusual updating of an old play, Frank Wedekind‘s Frühlings Erwachen [Spring’s Awakening] (1891), a cri de coeur against the repression German bourgeois adults of that era visited upon their young both by imparting and enforcing taboos against normal sexual behaviors and by restricting information about sex, most notably the way in which babies are made. The play was regarded as scandalous, banned in New York and London. Owing in part to its many ties to a particular time and place, the play is seldom performed today. It was the genius of the musical’s creators, Steven Sater (book and lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (music), to modernize Wedekind’s radicalism by setting the youngsters’ interior monologues to music. Those monologues, freed from any mooring to 19th-century Germany, were phrased with contemporary slang and awareness of today’s technology, and accompanied by music whose stylistic palette ranges from modernist composition to rock. Critic Adam Feldman wrote, accurately: “This is not the sound of your parents’ cast album; this is the sound of your iPod, of alt-rock radio, of late-night parties in a melancholy mood.” (Okay, references to iPods and alt-rock radio read as kind of 2006 today, but you get the idea.) The resulting work is powerful and moving, and, as I have observed at other stagings, resonates deeply with young audiences, even ones arriving with less-than-average familiarity with the theater.

Dealing seriously with provocative material like masturbation, incest, child abuse, masochism, homosexuality, abortion, sex education, homelessness and suicide, it is a fitting show for Stillpointe. Since I’ve been following it, the company has tended to embrace the challenging side of the musical theater repertoire, most recently with productions of Leonard Bernstein‘s Trouble in Tahiti and the somewhat Brechtian Urinetown, material too cerebral and/or edgy for most dinner theaters. It proudly pays stipends to its performers, unlike many community-based theaters, and uses live pit bands, not recordings. Perhaps as a result of these resource commitments, in other respects Stillpointe tends to be minimalist; stagings are not lavish, and the venues are not typical dedicated theater spaces.

These traits work both with and against this staging. The vocal talent on display is outstanding, and the performances are of professional quality, especially those of the principals: Jennie Phelps as Wendla, the girl whose erotic explorations bring both fulfillment and tragedy, Paul Kennedy as Melchior, standard-bearer for a more enlightened future, and Nick Fruit as Moritz, Melchior’s troubled young friend for whom sexual and intellectual development seem overwhelming. The two older performers tasked with portraying all of the adults, B. Thomas Rinaldi and Courtney Proctor, each convincingly sketch out a series of distinct personalities.

That said, Stillpointe still has not solved its venue problem. It was a positive move to take this production out of the space for which it was originally slotted, in the chapter house of the United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon which had made Urinetown so challenging, and bring it to Area 405. The new space, known for art shows and fund-raising events, has much better acoustics and accessibility than United Methodist. But, in keeping with its history as a converted industrial site, Area 405 also sports pillars partially blocking most if not all sight-lines, pretty much guaranteeing that each important part of the show will take place out of some audience-members’ view. Ryan Haase, the director of the show, announced at the outset that the troupe is still searching for the right venue for an upcoming production, and we can all wish Stillpointe success in this search, because it really is vital.

The move has also left unresolved another sound-related issue I have noted before, which is the volume imbalance between the band and the singers. The very competent instrumentalists, directed by Charlotte Evans, still frequently drown out the singers. (Other audience members I spoke with volunteered this criticism to me unprompted.) Unlike at United Methodist, this seems to be not even partly an acoustics problem but simply a sound design one; whatever the house in which a show is performed, instruments generally tend to drown out singers, which is one reason Broadway musicals mike their performers (and have since the 1970s). (Even brassy-voiced Ethel Merman was miked.) To shine as brightly as it deserves to, Stillpointe would do well to put amplification of the singers’ voices on its to-do list along with finding a venue more conducive to visibility.

None of these problems mean audiences should steer clear; with acting and singing at this level, and with such a strong, moving work, this rendering of Spring Awakening packs a punch, and will reward any evening’s theater-going. Unfortunately, next weekend is the last in this run, so dispatch will be necessary to catch it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production artwork.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

 

 

 

Judith Ivey Enjoyably Gives Us CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF As A Love Story at Center Stage

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review

Judith Ivey Enjoyably Gives Us CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF As A Love Story at Center Stage

Andrew Pastides and Stephanie Gibson

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 22, 2018

Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof, an indisputable classic, did not attain that distinction on the basis of its clarity. It is notoriously one of the most ambiguous, most internally inconsistent works in the American dramatic canon, impossible to perform while simultaneously giving full faith and credit to every point established in the script and every interaction we witness among the characters. The ultimate question Williams poses is: Will Maggie, the indomitable wife of Brick, the drunkard scion of a Delta plantation manse, overcome the estrangement between her and her husband long enough to conceive a child and thereby preserve Brick’s claim to the family estate? And Williams leaves that even question far from definitively resolved.

Director Judith Ivey‘s version of Cat, now enjoyably ensconced at Center Stage, is described in a program note as being a “traditional interpretation” and a “love story,” which among other things must mean that the answer we are supposed to take away to the question whether Brick and Maggie will get together again is yes. Because Williams has so successfully gotten us cheering for Maggie, we in the audience want this. We would very much like to see Maggie triumphantly dragging Brick into coitus and conception in the final frame, and an interpretation like Ivey’s, which all but promises that, is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. But if a director chooses to make that easy initial choice, that will be about the last easy thing the director will find in this play.

To present this take on the piece, Brick (Andrew Pastides), must be thought to continue to love Maggie (Stephanie Gibson) in some way, shape or form, in the presence of repeated evidence she has repelled him since the moment he learned she slept with his friend Skipper, causing various unhappy consequences. And the audience must be made to disbelieve the interpretation that Brick’s own relationship with Skipper was an at least unconsciously sexual one.

As to the first challenge, Ivey lays the groundwork for showing the two of them in love as early as Act One, but it isn’t easy, as the Act ends with Brick’s question which sums up the problem: [H]ow in hell on earth do you imagine – that you’re going to have a child by a man that can’t stand you?” That’s strong language if they are supposed to be mutually in love at that point. Ivey, it seems, hopes to counteract the early evidence of Brick’s revulsion at Maggie by showing Brick and Maggie sharing a number of laughs at her catty observations about Brick’s family. But these mutual laughs are not commanded by the script. And it doesn’t work well; there is something uncomfortably sitcom-y in the way this Maggie laughs at her own jokes. Fortunately, the staging of Acts Two and Three (though there is only one intermission in this rendition) doesn’t continue to make her behave out-of-character this way. But there’s nothing much to work with on the other side. Until the very last moments, the script provides little other raw material for the argument that their relationship is improving. The best support – and it’s weak – is the material relating to homosexuality.

On that score, Ivey is struggling at least as much against what we know about Williams as against the script. It is common knowledge that Williams was a gay playwright itching to out himself (as he actually did on David Frost‘s show years later). That was not something he could do in 1954, when he wrote Cat. Brick certainly acts like a man with a secret he wants to act on but not to name – and that secret does not seem to be heterosexual desire for Maggie. True, we have Maggie’s lip-smacking account of making love with Brick in earlier days to contradict the accusation, but only her words. What we see, on the other hand, is that Maggie cannot now get a rise (literally) out of Brick.

There is a similar contradiction in the relationship between Brick’s father, Big Daddy (David Schramm), and his mother, Big Mama (Charlotte Booker). Big Daddy is one of the great characters of American theater, a demiurgic creator of a 28,000-acre plantation, profane, domineering, direct – but helpless against the cancer that will soon take his life. He claims to despise his wife, and maybe he does, but he seems more dependent upon her than he lets on. She is no slouch herself in the domineering department, and when she simply refuses to take him at his word as he rejects her, we have to consider seriously that her husband talks a better game of despising her than he plays. Maybe this too is a love story

Granted, there is some support for Ivey’s love story approach in the play’s last 200 or so words, but they are far from conclusive, and there is less support in the stage directions, which are crafted to foster ambiguity. This cast does not precisely follow them – although it hews closer to them than did a recent Broadway production I saw starring Scarlett Johansson which helped along the love-story reading by closing with Maggie actually climbing astride Brick in bed with sexual intent.

But as I say, we in the audience want to believe that Maggie and Brick have a future. She is honest (mostly) and poor and scrappy and, her flawed behavior with Skipper notwithstanding, she is admirable. And Brick is – well, at least he is honest. (With an asterisk about his failure to acknowledge even to himself his sexual orientation, if we read him that way.) So Ivey gives us the Maggie and Brick we want to believe in. And why not? As I’ve said, every other approach to the play is also fraught with land mines. This approach is at least as valid as the others.

And having chosen it and done about as well as one can do with it or any of the possible approaches, Ivey has helmed a really admirable production. Stephanie Gibson is everything one could want in a Maggie, determined and scrappy and smart and sexy. Andrew Pastides does what may be hardest for a Brick, holding fast to a comparatively flat affect, flat enough to render his thoughts and motivations mysterious, while everyone around him is acting up a storm. And – well, I’ve seen my share of Big Daddys, and I think Schramm is the best I’ve encountered. As I’ve said, it’s a monumental role. Schramm plays him with an enormous gut and an unrestrained id and he conveys the crudeness and impatience of a man who could assemble the largest farm in the Delta; he dominates every scene the way a Big Daddy should. (It’s very interesting comparing his performance to that of Burl Ives, who originated the role – albeit my only basis for comparison is the wretched 1958 movie. Ives, by contrast, comes across as tentative, vulnerable, and hardly believable as an empire-builder.)

The set, by Adam Koch, is handsome; one looks for little originality in the set of this play, constrained as it is by Williams’ fairly extensive prescriptions, but the execution matters greatly in a play where the world outside the room constantly encroaches, and the set must convey the vulnerability of Maggie and Brick’s privacy. And I was quite taken with Victoria Deorio’s sound design, from the clarity of each speech to the subtlety of the music cues.

Finally, as one whose own stage debut was as a juvenile in a Williams play, I tip my hat to the three youngsters who periodically erupt onto the scene as the “no-neck monsters,” a fine articulate little bunch of hellions: Leonardo Manni, Jack St. Pierre and Nina Brothers. (Though I wonder why a company with the resources of Center Stage cut Williams’ number of onstage monsters by one – and likewise the number of servants by one.)

Center Stage’s fans are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Stephanie Ybarra, the new Artistic Director, to see what unique stamp she places on the programming at this critical Maryland institution. In the meantime, this handsome production of an American classic serves as a welcome placeholder.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo. Photo credit: Bill Geenen.

Theater Reviews Page | Previous Theater Review | Next Theater Review