1960s or 2017?
It is hard to imagine American Blues Theatre’s production of Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn’s play The Columnist feeling any less timely. No doubt, for the next four years many audiences will be struck at the relevance of much of what they are seeing on stage. That said, Auburn’s play, directed by Keira Fromm, about famous journalist Joe Alsop and the Cold War bears some striking similarities to current newspapers, with its focus on the media’s influence on politics and threats of Russian blackmail.
Amidst a changing America, Alsop struggles to balance the secrets of his personal life with his professional life in Auburn’s drama about the power of the press.
American Blues theatre’s The Columnist led by strong performance
At the heart of The Columnist is its central character: Joe Alsop. Played by Philip Earl Johnson, Alsop is fully and believably rendered, an impressive man with a formidable command of language and strong commitment to playing out his own political ambitions through the articles he pens. Johnson’s portrayal combines a wry charisma with a strong sense of self to deftly handle the bulk of Auburn’s script’s demands.
Johnson is matched by honest work from the rest of the cast, which includes Coburn Goss as his brother, Stuart, Kymberly Mellen as his wife, Susan Mary Alsop, and Tyler Meredith as his step-daughter, Abigail, Fromm’s production effectively creates a compelling story about a major historical figure. A moving scene late in the second act between Johnson and Meredith shows Alsop’s paternal aptitude despite the fact that he largely chooses work over family throughout his life.
Streamlined scenic design transports us through history
The marbled unit set by Joe Schermoly serves Auburn’s story well, moving from locations in Moscow to Saigon to America seamlessly. These scenic transitions are executed swiftly while small bits of staging serve as vignettes to progress the storytelling. The marbled columns and decor of Alsop’s living room and office are crafted with an eye towards texture and ornately capture the era as well as Alsop’s standards of living. Although The Columnist shifts locations and charts several years of Alsop’s life, Fromm’s keen direction and the smart design of Schermoly and lighting designer Jared Gooding smoothly tell the story without disorienting viewers. Staged in the thrust with minimal accents from period furniture, the design orients us in time without overshadowing the strong performances on its stage.
Slice of life story
The Columnist’s examination of the role of the press during pivotal moments in our history serves to illustrate how much the media and its relationship to Americans has changed in the past fifty years. Auburn’s slice of life portrayal of Alsop’s career offers some comfort by revealing the hardships our nation has faced in its history as well as how journalism has served as an important facet of its growth and development.
An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Through April 1st.
Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 3:00pm and 7:30pm (except March 4)
Sunday at 2:30pm.
1225 W. Belmont Ave.