by Lynn on August 29, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur

Adapted by Michael Healey

Directed by Graham Abbey

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Composer and sound designed by John Gzowski

Cast: Maev Beaty

Michael Blake

Ben Carlson

Juan Chioran

David Collins

Sarah Dodd

Rosemary Dunsmore

Farhang Ghajar

Michelle Giroux

Emma Grabinsky

Randy Hughson

John Kirkpatrick

Shruti Kothari

Daniel Krmpotic

Josue Laboucan

Jamie Mac

Gordon S. Miller

Amelia Sargisson

Mike Shara

E.B. Smith

Johnathan Sousa

Michael Spencer-Davis

Sophia Walker

Michael Healey has written a savvy, respectful, very funny adaptation of the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur classic that speaks to our troubled times. The cast is superb.

 The Story. The Front Page was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and opened in New York in 1928. Michael Healey has adapted the play for the Stratford Festival.

It takes place in Chicago, in the press room of the court house. A bunch of reporters are covering the hanging of Earl Williams, a white man who is accused of killed a black cop and there is a lot of time to kill while they wait for the next morning when the hanging will take place.

Both Hecht and MacArthur in fact were reporters in Chicago before they went into playwriting so they have the knowledge of the world of the reporter, the newspaper business and all the shenanigans in between.

The reporters and others in that press room spend the time waiting, playing cards, trying to find shreds of information to create a story to submit to their papers, blithely making up facts and giving everybody a hard time.

The prize reporter is Hildy Johnson who is quitting to get married, but is blocked by his colleagues, his editor, the joke of a sheriff and the corrupt mayor.

Then the prisoner escapes and all hell breaks loose as everybody goes into overdrive trying to get the scoop about what happened, especially Hildy Johnson.

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini’s design of the press room looks like a bunch of slobs work there. Crumpled up bits of paper are strewn across the floor. There are wastepaper baskets in the room, but they don’t seem to be used much, except by the most fastidious. Desks are placed around the room. There are old fashioned phones that require two hands to use, one to hold the receiver and one to hold the place into which one talks. There is nothing grand or comfortable about the place.

The production is directed with split-second precision by Graham Abbey. It would have to be precise with 23 characters on that stage at one time or another. It’s raucous, loud—everybody yelling over everybody else to be heard. I didn’t mind the yelling—I’ve heard worse in over-microphoned musicals.  Reporters rush in and out of the room trying to get a story. The speed of the comings and goings ramps up until the end when it looks more like a farce than a serious comedy. With this fast and furious world the sound level is raised and I can believe it.

Beside the precision, Abbey has a keen eye for the comedic gesture, the sight gag, the visual joke. But he also knows how to bring out serious moments by framing the scene and staging it so that there is no doubt where the focal point is.

A case in point is a scene involving a reporter named Wilson who is black. One of his colleagues nonchalantly uses the “N” word in regards to the condemned man and the black cop he is accused of killing.

E.B Smith plays Wilson with straight-backed confidence and dignity. When he hears the ‘N’ word Smith as Wilson sits looking forward, his face a stony expression.  Just as subtly, the person who says the word momentarily realizes he might have been inappropriate as he looks at Wilson. Graham Abbey leaves no doubt in his staging that the focus if this important exchange is Wilson and the racism around him.

Someone asks Wilson his opinion of Earl Williams the man condemned to be hanged. Wilson says he has no opinion because as a reporter he is only supposed to present the facts fairly and openly without having an opinion to sway him or others. He says that if the little paper he works for is not scrupulously honest then the vultures will be out ready to pounce and kill the paper. As Wilson, E.B. Smith is forceful, precise, and compelling in his truthfulness.  Scenes like this give the production a serious, solid grounding among the humour.

E.B. Smith plays Wilson with a dignified elegance and stature that puts him in a class alone from the other reporters.  He plays poker with the others and is as raucous in language as they are when bantering, but when dealing with a story, he is all business. His jacket is buttoned up. His back is straight and he commands respect.

The star of course is Hildy Johnson and he is played with effortless energy, command and determination by Ben Carlson.  He’s like an explosion on that stage and always riveting. This is a man who just wants to leave that paper and the rough and tumble world it represents and marry the woman he loves and live quietly. But the world is closing in on him: there is his exasperated future mother-in-law (played with a delicious fury by Rosemary Dunsmore); his loving but impatient fiancée Peggy, played with cool intensity by Amelia Sargisson; the intoxicating story he can’t resist; and the colourful buffoons who are so interesting (Mike Shara as the walking disaster windbag, Sheriff Hartman and Juan Chioran who is sartorially splendid but morally slimy as The Mayor).

Ben Carlson is ably paired with Maev Beaty who plays Cookie Burns. She is tough, in total command of that paper and everybody who works there. For every twist and turn in the plot, Cookie Burns is right there figuring the angles just as her late husband Walter would have done.

The whole cast is superb.

Comment.  Michael Healey has adapted The Front Page, the 1928 classic so that it has one foot firmly in 1928 when it was first done and one foot in 2019.  Michael Healey is of course a successful playwright (The Drawer Boy).  And he is a political animal having written plays about Joe Clark ( 1979) and Stephen Harper (Proud).

He knows a classic such as The Front Page when he sees one and certainly has respect for it and its world. But Healey is also inventive and creative.  So while the time frame is the same as are many details in the story, there are inclusions that let us know the world is changing.

McLaren who used to be a man in the original version is now a fearless woman. Hildy’s irascible editor, Walter Burns, is dead and the paper is now run by his equally irascible wife Penelope “Cookie” Burns.

There are references to ‘fake news.’ At the top of the show I hear an ad on the radio for a political candidate urging people to “Make America American Again.”

I think the most telling sign of change is with the character of Wilson who is black. He has to listen to racist remarks from his colleagues and not flinch. And while many of the reporters are lazy and don’t care about facts there is Wilson, Hildy and a few others who do take the job seriously and look for the truth.

The play is masterful in depicting a time that mirrors our own. I think Michael Healey’s adaptation polishes up that mirror and sharpens the image of the world we live in now.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Began: July 30, 2019.

Closes: Oct. 25, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

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1 Jack Heller October 13, 2019 at 7:56 am

That little paper Wilson works for us said to be the Chicago Defender. There was an actual Chicago Defender newspaper, at one time the largest Black American newspaper in the United States. It was particularly influential in getting news to Black readers in the American South. As has occurred with many newspapers, it is now out of business, as of 2019, in fact.