Monday, December 2, 2019

Highly Anticipated ‘Ordinary Americans’ Opens this Week at Palm Beach Dramaworks

It is rare for a World Premiere play to be extended before it even opens, but the pre-opening demand for Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Ordinary Americans by Joseph McDonough has been so enthusiastic, that it has now been extended to January 5, opening on December 6.  Is it no wonder?  This new play dramatizes a time not unlike our own, written by a proven playwright, and staring one of South Florida’s most accomplished actors, Elizabeth Dimon as the indefatigable Gertrude “Tillie” Berg (AKA Molly Goldberg).

Elizabeth Dimon as Gertrude Berg
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Ordinary Americans has all the right stuff to make it a hit.

When television was in its infancy, few actors were as beloved as Gertrude Berg and the gentle comedy that she created, wrote, produced, and starred in, The Goldbergs.  The program began on radio in 1929, and 20 years later became one of TV’s earliest sitcoms.  For her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, the matriarch of a Jewish family living in the Bronx, Berg was the first recipient of an Emmy Award for Best Actress. 

The Goldbergs was a huge moneymaker for CBS.  And then, in June, 1950, a pamphlet, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” was published by a right-wing newsletter. It listed 151 artists and broadcasters as “Red Fascists and their sympathizers.”  Proponents of civil rights and academic freedom were among the favorite targets.  Many of them, not coincidentally, were Jewish.  Among those ensnared by this very real witch hunt was Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg, Molly’s TV husband.  When CBS demanded that Berg fire Loeb, she refused.  The show was taken off the air.

The aftermath of that decision, and the consequences of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism on Berg, Loeb, and the Goldberg “family,” is at the center of Joseph McDonough’s Ordinary Americans, a co-production with GableStage that was commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks.

There is an unusual back story about the play’s beginnings: it was suggested by Elizabeth Dimon who plays the lead.  “I came to the idea of a possible play about Gertrude Berg after reading about the ‘blacklisting’ of actors during the 1950’s ‘red scare’.  This remarkable woman not only starred in her own show, but had authored more than 12,000 radio and TV scripts during her lifetime.  She was in sharp contrast to most in the TV business, a strong, independent figure, and a woman as well. I thought to myself, I would love to play Berg and brought the idea about a play to Bill.” 

Bill Hayes, PBD Producing Artistic Director was intrigued and immediately thought of Joe McDonough as the ideal playwright.  “In addition to PBD being instrumental in developing this play, it is the timeliest play we’ve ever done.  What was going on then was so subversive; everyone just thought that justice would prevail.  Although our present times are not exactly the same, it was a similar world, just seen through a different prism. I felt a co production with GableStage was important to spread the message this play has to say.  I also think it’s important for the arts of collaborate – there is strength in numbers – so this play will open in Miami soon after it closes here.  It is our hope that it will eventually be picked up by other theatres as well.”

Joseph McDonough
The playwright, Joe McDonough said “I enjoyed writing almost an historical piece, infusing it with the natural drama of the story, and felt a tremendous obligation towards fidelity. In fact I researched the papers of Philip Loeb at the New York Public Library, which had his notes before he testified before the House on Un-American Activities. Among his notes was this plaintive statement: ‘here I am having tried to do justice in my life and now I am being made a victim of injustice.’  I’m telling a tragedy here and want to be faithful to the real people in the drama. It’s a powerful story that excites and the universality of the issues are such they almost write themselves.”

David Kwait in his PBD debut plays Philip Loeb.  Ordinary Americans is a revelation to me as The Goldbergs was before my time.  I admire my character’s sense of justice always being on the side of advocacy for actors and their working conditions.  In the play Angels in America I ironically acted the part of Roy Cohn, the polar opposite of Philip Loeb, and from the same era, but my training is to be an advocate for the character and let the audience decide.”

Tillie’s right hand gal, Fannie, is played by Margery Lowe.  “Fannie’s outright dedication to Tillie, and her ability to keep her boss under control was remarkable.  They were like sisters.  And I love playing with Beth as we’ve acted together more than a dozen times and we can communicate with just a look. And I like my secondary role as Mrs. Kramer being able to shout out “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!  The play seems eerily current as I drove down I95 today listening to the Congressional Hearings.”

Rob Donohoe and Tom Wahl play a number of roles, a testament to how PBD is able to stage the play along with Donohoe and Wahl’s versatility. 

Donohoe said “although a World Premiere, this experience was very different that the last one I played in at PBD, House on Fire, which came to us pretty much a finished piece.  Ordinary Americans was commissioned by PBD and underwent enormous changes in its development.  I play a number of characters but mainly Eli Mintz who is ‘Uncle David’ on the TV show.  He was an immigrant from Poland and his pessimism is like a Greek Chorus in the play.  I also play Cardinal Spellman who wheeled tremendous influence in the 1950s. Although he was a man of strong convictions about himself, I hope to show his humanity, his belief that he was saving souls even though he played a part in ‘the Red Scare.”  Donohoe summed it all up saying “it is frightening how similar that period of distrust and fear resembles those of today, and this new play captures that very feeling.”

Following its run at PBD, Ordinary Americans moves south to GableStage, where it can be seen from January 18 – February 16, 2020. PBD Producing Artistic Director William Hayes directs the play. Ilana Becker is the associate director (PBD debut). Set design is by Michael Amico, costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Christina Watanabe (PBD debut), and sound design is by David Thomas.