Reviewed by George Basler
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Dalton Trumbo went from being one of the highest paid and most respected screenwriters in Hollywood to being a social and political pariah.
The reason was the Hollywood blacklist, which banned actors and writers with Communist, or even leftist, leanings from working in the movie business.
Trumbo, who wrote such films as Spartacus, Roman Holiday and Exodus, was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948. He became a prime target when he defied the House Un-American Activities Committee by refusing to name colleagues who, like him, had dabbled in Communism.
Southern Tier Actors Read is now bringing the blacklisted writer to life in a compelling production of the play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, which opened Monday (March 28) at the Art Mission and Theater and will be performed Friday and Saturday (April 1-2) at The Bundy Museum, both in Binghamton.
Written by Trumbo’s son, Christopher Trumbo, who was also a screen and television writer, the play uses Trumbo’s letters, written during the period when he was blacklisted, to paint a portrait of the combative, witty and acerbic writer who, to put it mildly, did not suffer fools gracefully.
Veteran local actor Bill Gorman plays Trumbo while Chris Nickerson, another prominent local actor, plays Christopher Trumbo, who functions as the narrator. Nickerson also directed.
Both Gorman and Nickerson do first-rate jobs. Unlike Bryan Cranston’s Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s movie, Gorman makes no attempt to imitate the blacklisted writer, who died in 1976 of a heart attack. Instead he focuses on conveying Trumbo’s passion and point of view and bringing the letters to life. It’s a very effective portrayal.
Nickerson is equally good. While the role is smaller, and less flashy, it’s the glue that connects the letters and holds the play together.
Audience members should keep in mind, however, that Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted is hardly a complete, or unbiased, presentation of a complex and controversial man.
In the play, Trumbo comes across as a heroic defender of the First Amendment, but some other less admirable facts go unmentioned. Fact number one: Trumbo was a major supporter of the Soviet Union at a time when millions were dying in famines orchestrated by Josef Stalin, and Stalin’s regime was shipping opponents to gulags (the First Amendment was low on Stalin’s priority list).
Trumbo also closely followed the Communist Party line in backing the Hitler-Stalin pack that launched World War II, and he wasn’t reluctant to silence critics of the Soviet Union while editing The Screen Writer, a publication of the Screen Writers Guild.
Moreover, he was apologist for the Soviet Union in the years after World War II when Stalin and his minions were setting up oppressive puppet regimes in Eastern Europe.
So while Trumbo’s defense of the First Amendment at the time of the blacklist was admirable, some of his beliefs were less than praiseworthy.
Still, although Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted may only scratch the surface of Trumbo’s contentious and controversial life, the Southern Tier Actors Read production is certainly worthwhile seeing.
Don’t worry — the play not a dull history lesson. While it’s a serious work, it’s not dark or depressing. Far from it. It’s often quite funny. Trumbo was a truly fine writer, and his letters, read by Gorman, are consistently entertaining.
In fact, the play’s strongest point from my perspective is the pure joy of listening to Trumbo’s masterful use of the English language.
Some of his letters are funny and playful, such as one he wrote to his son in form of a nursery rhyme about the day he was born.
Others are deeply felt. One especially touching letter is to the mother of a friend who allowed Trumbo to use his name on a screenplay while he was blacklisted. The man had died unexpectedly at a young age, and Trumbo’s letter is a heartfelt tribute.
Still others are caustic, sarcastic or angry. Trumbo dashed off a blistering letter to the principal at her daughter’s school after the girl was bullied by classmates for her parent’s political beliefs.
One the most powerful letters is one Trumbo sent explaining why he could never be an informant. In the letter Trumbo remembers seeing the graves of 2,198 Americans, and the American flag, on Iwo Jima and notes “it was not the flag of informants.” Gorman’s reading of the letter is riveting.
The Trumbo that emerges is a man with arrogance and abrasiveness to spare, who was also playful, funny, loyal and devoted to his family. He could wield words like cudgels but also be delicate and tender.
In an interview last week, Gorman and Nickerson emphasize that the blacklist era, which ruined the lives of hundreds of people because of their political beliefs, still resonates today, even though it took place close to 70 years ago.
“It’s important for our county that’s a wonderful democracy to be reminded there are dark times in our history when we haven’t lived up to the values we espouse,” Gorman said.
Nicholson is even blunter. “It’s very much still relevant. Just replace the word communist with the word Muslim.”
“He (Trumbo) stuck to his guns. Whether you agree or not, you have to admire the fact he didn’t give in,” Nickerson said.
IF YOU GO: Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted will be performed 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 1 and 2) at The Bundy Museum, 127-129 Main St., Binghamton. Tickets at $15 can be purchased at the door (arrival by 7:30 p.m. is recommended, because seating is limited).