Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Busy Day

For the two new members of our family. “First we tore apart this feather thing, then we went to the vet.” Hard to get a clear picture. I tell them to stand still, but . . .

Girl from the North Country

This Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre is a real treat for anyone at all a Bob Dylan fan. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, its slim but heartfelt story showcases more than 20 of Dylan’s songs, accompanying them with a small group of background musicians who let the words shine through. Though the eponymous tune is on the playlist, I somehow missed it, so here’s the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version for your listening enjoyment.

The songs from the 60s and early 70s hold up well, rather evenly balanced with more recent work. This isn’t a “best of” concert, so there were some less familiar songs too. A few get a gospel treatment, which blurred the words for my ears (in the second row), and of course, it’s Dylan’s lyrics that are so powerful. He is a Nobel Prize-winner after all!

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter 1934, “where the wind hits heavy on the border line.” There, the proprietor and residents of a down-at-heels boarding house, who seem to have been pulled straight from Dylan’s lyrics, face numerous and varied difficulties. Mostly poverty. The establishment is run by a hard-pressed Gene Laine (played by Jay O. Sanders). His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is in the early stages of dementia. While she may be a bit off and filter-free, she sees what’s going on better than almost anyone, and Winningham plays her beautifully. Their son Nick (Colton Ryan) is frittering away his youth and, when his girlfriend leaves him, his rendition of “I Want You” with his shyly pleading smile, is a heart-breaker.

Their unmarried daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), an African American foundling the Laines raised, is pregnant, and wrongly accused prison escapee and former boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) wants to marry her. This plotline provides the perfect opportunity to sing a bit of “Hurricane.” (You may have seen Scott as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway.)

There are more guests with heavy burdens, and ending with “Forever Young” provides an ironically upbeat note. All the acting is strong from the 13-member cast. The music is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and I liked the simple set with photographic backdrops, especially a bleak Lake Superior in winter.

Photo: Pixabay

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

Midwives

Photo: © T Charles Erickson

George Street Playhouse’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Midwives, directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, David Saint, opened January 24 and runs through February 16. Chris Bohjalian’s 1997 suspense novel has sold more than two million copies, and at least two previous attempts have been made to take it from page to stage. For George Street’s version, Bohjalian himself takes on the writing task. That he’s more a novelist than a playwright may account for some of my difficulties with this production.

Sibyl Danforth (played by Ellen McLaughlin), a well-respected Vermont midwife, is attending the labor of Charlotte Bedford (Monique Robinson). On hand are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George) and Sibyl’s new assistant, Anne Austin (Grace Experience). It’s the middle of the night and an ice storm rages outside and the labor is not going well. Finally, the situation deteriorates to the point that she agrees Charlotte should go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the storm has knocked out the phone lines and the roads around the Bedfords’ remote farmhouse are impassable. When Charlotte falls unconscious, Sibyl believes she’s had a stroke. She cannot detect blood pressure or pulse. CPR proves fruitless. Faced with a dead mother, Sibyl’s attention turns to saving the infant, using a kitchen knife to cut Charlotte open.

In Act Two, Sibyl is on trial for manslaughter. Anne maintains Charlotte was alive when Sibyl made the incision, and the state’s attorney (Armand Schultz) argues that Sibyl’s intervention killed her. Sibyl’s lawyer (Lee Sellars) says, on the contrary, she saved a life.

Throughout, you have the perspective of Sybil’s daughter, 14-year-old Connie (Molly Carden). The events around Charlotte’s death and her mother’s trial are vivid in Connie’s mind almost a decade later, when she is a budding OB-GYN. While skipping around in time is rather easily handled in a novel, in a play it makes for some awkward scenelets. Especially puzzling were interactions between medical student Connie and Anne.

In ancient times, a sibyl was considered a witch, and, regrettably, the pursuit of Sibyl Danforth becomes a witch-hunt, which oversimplifies many issues. The play would have had a much-needed infusion of drama had it retained the novel’s final surprise as a surprise.

Bohjalian made another important departure from the book when he made Charlotte and Asa Bedford African American. A black preacher and his wife newly arrived in northern Vermont to serve a congregation of Q-tips (Charlotte’s description) shifts the social dynamic and raises unnecessary (and unanswered) questions.

The actors do a good job with the somewhat limited emotional range provided by the script. McLaughlin is stoic, Experience is a master of “I told you so,” and George is the most sympathetic when he declares he doesn’t want Sibyl punished. This is a story that should have been dripping with drama; I don’t understand why it wasn’t.

Midwives is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile

Nile River, river boat

In a much-anticipated 17-day trip, I finally went to Egypt this month. To see in person the legendary monuments and all the evidence of a 4000-year-old civilization was, of course, thrilling. The whole experience was enhanced by the skill of our Grand Circle tour guide, Gladys Haddad, who, despite her name, is Egyptian. The overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met was heartwarming.

As you probably know, but may not have thought about, Egypt is basically a desert. Almost all the country’s 100 million or so people live in the narrow strip of arable land along both sides of the Nile River. Egypt’s Western Desert, which extends to Libya, and its Eastern Desert, which extends to the Red Sea, flank this fertile Nile valley. We were well aware of this in Cairo, because of the tremendous amount of dust in the air and on anything not moving, like a parked car or building. Check your plate when you sit down to eat.

In some places, that fertile strip is miles wide, in others, mountains encroach. There’s a sharp line between where palms, crops, and other greenery will grow and where they will not. Here we have plants; here we don’t.

For millennia, the north-flowing Nile predictably and massively flooded every June, bringing a thick layer of silt to the valley and recharging the farmland soil. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control this flooding, which has enabled much enlargement of the area available for farming and building where it was impossible before. If you’ve seen old photos of the Nile with the pyramids in the background, those were taken during the flood season. In fact the river channel is many miles away.

In ancient times, several fingers of water flowed to the Mediterranean, but over the centuries, many of them were blocked off, and now only two form the Y of the delta at Alexandria.

I didn’t know or had forgotten that Sudan was originally part of Egypt and was not an independent country until 1956. A tricky political problem to watch is whether Sudan pursues a plan to build more dams on the southern reaches of the Nile, closer to its headwaters. Such an act would be catastrophic for Egypt, which has no groundwater and depends totally on the river.

Nile River, night, lights

In Cairo, our lovely Intercontinental Hotel Semiranis overlooked the river, and, surprisingly, in this generally conservative country, the party on the corniche 15 stories below seemed to go all night. That I did not expect. Neon bedecked motor cruisers, water taxis, and traditional feluccas are always out.

For a week on this trip, we were on the lovely MS Nefertiti, pictured below, cruising from Luxor south to Aswan with stops for the sights in between. 220 tourist boats (capacity 100-200) are licensed to use the river. About 80 percent of them were on the water this month, as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to recover from the dip after 2011. They dock six to nine abreast in the major ports. If we thought we were spoiled by the hotel staff, imagine 75 Americans on a ship with 63 crew! One night they set up a movie for us—what else, but Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

River Boat, Nile River, Nefertiti

More to come.

Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photos: the Nile from the boat and at night by Vicki Weisfeld; the Nefertiti by Grand Circle tours.

Romeo and Juliet: On Stage

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet. From there, everything goes downhill.

Over the years, seeing this play and reading David Hewson’s admirable Juliet and Romeo, I’ve come to recognize that, although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. Yet he needs to be a credible lover, a person who would inspire passion and passionate acts. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid becoming ensnared by the rhythms of Shakespeare’s prose. If so, it didn’t work for me. At times, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

A Dose of Reality

gun, firearm, weapon

Although the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics to understand the interest crime stories hold.

A friend passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health” issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are written and read.

In 2017, the United States experienced about 19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.

US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more than 20%.

The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.

Many mass shootings involve domestic or family violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target individual.

More than one in five US children are physically abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.

About three in ten emergency physicians are assaulted every year.

About three percent of homicides are police killings.

Research on violence is underfunded. The federal government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000 per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.

In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.

Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”

You can order a copy of this themed issue here.

Photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license

Watch for These Films!

Unlike the two excellent first-run movies reviewed last week, showing widely now, it may take a little effort to seek these three out. Well worth it, in each case. To help, the hotlinks for two of them include a “where showing” button.

The Lehman Brothers Trilogy

A National Theatre Live broadcast of a London play about a family “that changed the world,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes, may come to a theater near you. It’s coming to Broadway too, not sure when. Though I wasn’t sure I’d like it, with only three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles—playing every part, it’s a stunner (trailer). And staged so cleverly. It follows the original three brothers through their earliest days as immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, through the establishment of a foothold in New York and their dizzying success there, to the company’s inglorious end. Find a showing here.

Van Gogh & Japan

A documentary by David Bickerstaff explores how, now almost 140 years ago, Vincent Van Gogh incorporated in his art themes and ideas from Japanese art (trailer). He learned about it by studying woodblock prints available at the time. His interest took place in a France whose artists were captivated by Japonisme. Excellent commentary. The film’s a beauty, if, at 85 minutes, a bit longer than necessary. Find a showing here.

Shadow

Van Gogh had his Japonisme, I have my love of ancient-China action movies! Zhang Yimou’s 2018 film, is all in “shadowy” yet rich tones of black, gray, and white, heavy rain and fog throughout (trailer). The only color is from candle flames and people’s skin. And, when it comes, the shocking red of blood. A rival clan has occupied the hero’s city. The hero (Deng Chao), stripped of his rank, approaches the rival leader to carry out a pledge for single combat—which he has scant hope of winning. But if he does win, his clan gets its city back. And he has a ragtag army to take on the leader’s well-trained forces using an innovative weapon—umbrellas. Not like yours. Yin-Yang symbolism, excellent score, and romance (Sun Li), too. If you enjoyed Zhang’s previous movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you’ll love this one!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 95%; audiences 82% (Americans don’t like subtitles).