Based on a true story

Dayton Theatre Guild presents “The Columnist” now through Oct. 18

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: David Shough as Joseph Alsop and Rick Flynn as brother Stewart Alsop in the Dayton Theatre Guild’s performance of “The Columnist”, playing now through Oct. 18

Fair? No. Balanced? Never. Opinionated? Always.

Joseph Alsop, the mid-twentieth century syndicated political writer was scathingly clear in his work while remaining a complicated man in his family relationships. David Auburn, the playwright, has created a theatre piece, not a detailed biography. It’s an inside look at history.

David Shough takes on the enormous role of Joe; bombastic and determined to be uninvolved or untouched by emotion, Shough brings very effective variations to the character. The 1954 scene in a Moscow hotel room with a gay prostitute is almost lighthearted, perhaps revealing Joe’s neediness.

His later domineering attitude toward his wife of convenience and her daughter covers the depth of feeling he holds for his real loves: conservative politics, his art collection, his column, winning in Vietnam and John Kennedy.

Rick Flynn as Stewart Alsop, the younger brother, brings a calm, subtle contrast to Joe’s egomania. He is almost totally the opposite—although also a writer. A family man, his stability and strength are well conveyed. At one time the brothers shared writing the column, but later Stewart firmly refused to continue working with Joe.

Wendi Michael plays Susan Mary, the ornamental widow Joe marries for social convention, after telling her of his homosexuality. She’s a somewhat dissociated hostess in early scenes but reacts emotionally to Kennedy’s assassination. Joe hides his grief. However, conflicts occur in act two between the couple and also between Susan Mary and Stewart. To these scenes she brings some of her best theatrical efforts: passion, longing, honesty with fine shading.

“We are dealing with real people, so there’s a certain obligation to be true to who and what they were,” Director Doug Lloyd says. “But this is a very emotional show, with many dark moments, so we deal with that.”

Lloyd has brought out the best in his actors. After the somewhat slow first act, essentially expository, the second contains challenging conflicts between Joe and Susan Mary, between Joe and Stewart and empathy between Stewart and Susan Mary. Each brings real energy to emotional peaks.

Playwright Auburn—whose previous work, “Proof,” about a family of mathematicians dealing with death and possible inherited mental illness, won a Pulitzer in 2001—expects his audience to be intelligent. He doesn’t detail every highpoint of history. For instance, one of the 11 scenes is listed as November 1963. Joe’s near adoration of Kennedy has been established. We never hear Kennedy or assassination. Instead, we feel it.

Sound designer K.L. Storer and Light Designer John Falkenbach have done their work well, each supporting cleverly the implications of the script. Vietnam protests on the Washington Mall are heard at Alsop’s Georgetown home with distant subtle sound. The Beatles are also part of the script.

Chris Petree, playing David Halberstam, is 28, the same age the journalist was when he received earlier incriminating photos of Joe in Russia in bed with the young man who turned out to be a KGB agent. His scenes with Stewart and with Joe are steady and even.

Abby, Susan Mary’s daughter from her first marriage, is played by two actors; the young student being taught Latin by Joe is Alexa Storar (no kin to K.L. Storer), who is actually a high school freshman. Her slightly older scenes are done by Jenna Gomes, a college grad. The girls do resemble each other and do teen angst just right. Later the older Abby confronts Joe and admits she’s dropped out and is active in anti-war protests. Abby seems to be the one person who softens Joe.

Dakota Duclo does a hint of Russian accent as the sexually attractive secret KGB agent. Years later, with somewhat imposing black sideburns, he turns up in Washington, now a Russian embassy attaché. His confident sophistication is shattered by Joe’s invulnerability to blackmail.

Phillip, Abby’s college boyfriend played by Ryan Shannon, has a just-right open face for his brief scene with Joe who renders him gasping and terrified.

The Theatre Guild has a conventional stage above a thrust stage, with three-quarter round seating. This presents both opportunity and challenge. Set designer Les Dershem uses the higher stage and the space below to handle the many scenes. He created two large bookcases for the thrust that are moved, almost choreographically, to reveal or hide the proscenium above. It takes four people to move them during black outs between scenes, a clever but noisy action. When Joe just walks down from one to the other into the final scene, it works more smoothly.

Doing a period show always presents the need for careful research. The costumes by Carol
Finley are spot on, including the fringed ’70s flower-child outfit for Abby, once Finley’s own.

The props, including the big manual typewriter, the phone and many other pieces are by Wendi Michael. Stage Manager is Kelly Engle and Producer is Deirdre Root. All tasks are multifaceted and absolutely essential to a smooth show.

Lloyd credits the cooperative spirit of both his cast and crew for helping make the nuances and unusual interactions of the “based-on-reality” play come alive.

“The Columnist” plays Friday, Oct. 9 and 16 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 10 and 17 at 5 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 11 and 18 at 3 pm. at The Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. For tickets or more information, please call 937.278.5993 or visit daytontheatreguild.org. 

Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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