Trumbo by Christopher Trumbo, based on the letters of Dalton Trumbo. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Passion is essential."
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was the first blacklisted writer to receive an on-screen credit, in 1960, for his work. This came nearly fourteen years after he was brought before the HUAC hearings to testify about his memberships in the Screen Writers Guild and the Communist Party. He objected to his treatment, refused to answer direct questions with the yes/no responses demanded of him and was jailed for impeding justice in these hearings. While he agreed with some of the party tenets espoused by the American Communists, he was never proved to be either a sympathizer or a member and his three most important late works, Spartacus, Exodus, and The Brave One are intellectually antithetical to the communist teachings of the day. Even with all the evidence in his favor he has never been completely cleared of suspicion, charges or even properly apologized to by the government for his persecution and his treatment. While he did win the Academy Award, he apparently never physically received one.
His son, who lived through this entire period and seems to be a reliable witness to his father’s life, has written a two-character play about D.T., as he often signed his letters, and it is now on stage in Pittsfield in a new Barrington Stage Company production that runs through February 24. Thom Christopher, so memorable for his portrayal of the painter Pablo Picasso at the beginning of last season, returns to Barrington stage as Trumbo. His son Christopher as Narrator, and a few other characters, are played by Brian Hutchison.
Although the play is costumed, lit and directed on a minimalist set, the play is read by the two actors. The only two production credits are for Jeff Davis as lighting Designer and Tristan Wilson as Sound Designer. Sometimes the sound is too loud, drowning out the actors. Sometimes the lights are too slow, leaving them to linger on stage with nothing to do or say. At other times everything sounded and looked just right.
Boyd has placed Trumbo in a chair, behind a table and she leaves him there for the entire play. Narrator Christopher moves from a podium, which he shifts into a second position at times, to a chair next to a small side table. Sometimes he moves the chair into other positions around the stage. The simplicity of this three unit set allows for the characters to establish place and focus our attention. Boyd uses the pieces perfectly, taking us where we need to be. The only disappointment is never having Trumbo leave his comfortable chair, even when it clearly grows uncomfortable for him, emotionally or psychologically.
While both actors are extremely good when in their finest moments, neither one has completely settled into the roles as written. The Narrator morphs into "The Committee," an inquisitor from the 1947 HUAC hearings and also into a TV interviewer. These two actual scenes, the only scenes in the play unless you count the acceptance speech moment near the end of the play, take on a naturalness and while Christopher keeps his Trumbo character alive and consistent, so, unfortunately does Hutchison. Here are two opportunities for him to establish a different sort of character, but he does not do that. He remains Christopher Trumbo doing the lines of other men.
These scenes are brief and we get through them without hating the actor. Hutchison is engaging and we like him, even when he’s being deliberately evil (ancient television kinescopes play through sections of this scene and we can actually see the young Richard Nixon sitting, lurking, learning).
Christopher’s performance in the central role was, on opening night, a bit troublesome. He has left such a strong impression from last summer as Picasso. He doesn’t replace that one with Trumbo. Perhaps it is the reading of the script, the manipulating of the pages in front of us. Perhaps it is his stagnant position at his table. Whatever it is, his performance was peculiarly leaden, sparked here and there with real emotion and fire, brightened over and over again with the intelligence of the mind that created the letters he reads. He seems, from his smile, to admire Trumbo, but he never truly becomes Trumbo. He stumbles over words, restarts a phrase, loses his place at times. He seems under-familiar with the material. I am told that the rehearsals for this play were very limited, a week or so at most, and that like the play Love Letters which is also read aloud it is supposed to feel like it does, but somehow, in this case, with such strong language, such vivid imagery and so much passion, it felt wrong.
In one particular instance, about forty minutes into the ninety-minute play, Trumbo has written to the principal of his daughter’s school. The writing expresses its author’s anger, disbelief and indignation over her treatment there by students and faculty, and yet Christopher’s reading of it was milder, more amused or bemused than angry. Phrases such as "...you have returned to us a spiritually devastated human being who begs us not to send her to school" and "I should like you to watch how decently and bravely our daughter tries to suppress her bewilderment at her first encounter with barbarism parading as American virtue. Barbarism which began at your school among adult persons" cannot be said without high emotion, but these lines are rendered with a gentleness that completely negates them.
Trumbo is an interesting evening as it stand, but it is an evening that could rock the world of an audience that lived through those years as well as alter the concepts of younger audience members who have no idea how people were made to suffer in this country for simply having beliefs that were different from their neighbors. Our world today is made up of many of these same issues and this is a very relevant piece of theater. It just needs to bring back the passions that fired the incidents being recounted here.
Thom Christopher as Dalton Trumbo; photo: Kevin Sprague
Brian Hutchison and Thom Christopher; photo: Kevin Sprague
Brian Hutchison as Christopher Trumbo; photo: Kevin Sprague
Trumbo plays through February 24 at Barrington Stage Company’s Union Street theater in Pittsfield. Ticket prices range from $15-$25 and there are $10 student tickets also.. Check with the box office for full schedule. There will be one performance at MCLA’s Venable Theater on Wednesday, February 20 at 7PM. The box office phone number is 413-236-8888 or you can check things out for yourself at their website: www.barringtonstageco.org