By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Dec. 2, 2019
It’s 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, which opens Dec. 6, has been so enthusiastic it’s been extended a week to Jan. 5.
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.
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.
“The Goldbergs” was a huge money maker for CBS. And then, in June 1950, a pamphlet titled, “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 1950s red scare,” she says. “This remarkable woman not only starred in her own show, but had authored more than 12,000 radio and TV scripts during her lifetime. I thought to myself, I would love to play that woman and brought the idea to Bill.”
Bill Hayes, Dramaworks producing artistic director, was intrigued and immediately thought of Joe McDonough as the ideal playwright.
“In addition to Palm Beach Dramaworks being instrumental in developing this play, it is the timeliest play we’ve ever done,” says Hayes. “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.”
Playwright Joe McDonough jumped on board immediately.
“I enjoyed writing almost an historical piece, infusing it with the natural drama of the story, and felt a tremendous obligation towards fidelity,” says McDonough. “It’s a powerful story that excites and the universality of the issues are such they almost write themselves.”
David Kwait plays Philip Loeb in his Dramaworks debut. “Ordinary Americans is a revelation to me as ‘The Goldbergs’ was before my time,” he says. “I admire my character’s sense of justice always being on the side of advocacy for actors and their working conditions.”
Tillie’s right hand gal, Fannie, is played by Margery Lowe, who says, “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.”
Rob Donohoe and Tom Wahl play a number of roles, a testament to their versatility.
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,” says Donohoe.
“Ordinary Americans” runs Dec. 6 through Jan. 5. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: From left, David Kwait as Philip Loeb, Elizabeth Dimon as Gertrude Berg and Rob Donohoe as Eli Mintz. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll