‘Ordinary Americans’ has deeply affecting world premiere at Dramaworks

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Dec. 9, 2019

Joseph McDonough’s “Ordinary Americans” just made its triumphant world premiere on the Palm Beach Dramaworks stage. This stirring new play based on actual events – co-produced with GableStage in Coral Gables – peels away to the truth of what it means to be human and to be vulnerable to political polarization, demagoguery and anti-Semitism. The production and insightful script will touch anyone who sees it. The 1950s may have been “the placid decade,” but underneath all the apparent innocence of the times American politics and ethnic relations were as fractious as they are now. 

The play’s title is ironic as the real-life characters in it were anything but ordinary, especially our protagonist, Gertrude “Tillie” Berg, who brilliantly and single handedly conceived, wrote and starred in “The Goldbergs,” first on radio and then on TV for more than two decades. Her extraordinary accomplishments as a woman and a Jew – particularly in a man’s world – echo throughout the play, yet she and her colleagues, especially her co-star Philip Loeb, fell victim to McCarthyism. 

“Ordinary Americans” is performed on a nearly-barren stage, serving a multiplicity of scenes in different places. It is the logical platform for those scene changes, fluidly balancing the play’s highly dramatic moments and humor to underscore its serious themes.

It is a memory play, opening with a scene in a diner in Ohio circa 1958 with the “I Love Lucy” show on TV. The scene quickly transitions to NBC studios in New York City in 1950. There stands Tillie, playing her TV character Molly Goldberg while surrounded by her cast in spotlighted tableau. There’s Philip Loeb as her TV husband Jake Goldberg and Eli Mintz as the show’s Uncle David. There’s also Berg’s lifetime assistant Fannie Merrill and the show’s production manager Walter Hart. This dramatic snapshot of the major characters truly sets the stage for the story they will tell.

Veteran actor Elizabeth Dimon’s performance as Tillie is so graceful that we forget we are watching a consummate artist at work. While radiating genuine warmth as “The Goldbergs” creator and star, Tillie does not suffer fools when crossed. Yet, like her TV creation Molly, she too has a heart of gold. Her TV family is her family. In fact, at times she wonders, “what would Molly do in this situation?”

From left, Elizabeth Dimon and Rob Donohoe. Photo by Alicia Donelan

It’s a difficult role to execute – an actor playing an actor – yet Dimon believably conjures both Tillie’s and Molly’s kindness and humor. If one wonders how Dimon can play this part with such heart and soul, it’s because the play was originally her idea. She’s been with the play since its inception – a perfect fit for such a seasoned actor.

Dimon increasingly shows the frustrated side of Tillie, especially in a maddening chaotic scene where she imagines being surrounded by potential advertisers and networks, all screaming at her simultaneously. Tillie slowly comes to the conclusion that she is at the end of her rope, yelling “PLEASE LISTEN TO ME!” Then, finally having to admit to herself that it’s “the first time in my life I feel helpless.”

While Tillie is the creative engine of “The Goldbergs” and clearly the master of her fate, she’s surrounded by people dependent on her for their employment. At the top of the list is Philip Loeb, who David Kwiat deftly portrays as the perpetual optimist and an advocate for just causes such as Actors Equity. It is Philip who has to cope with the consequences of being on the infamous John Birch Society-sponsored pamphlet of 151 artists and broadcasters titled “Red Fascists and their Sympathizers,” otherwise known as “the Red Channels list.” (Tillie observes that the way they define communist is “anyone they don’t agree with, union organizers, activists, artists” and especially Jews.)

Kwiat is the ideal Philip, always hoping for the best for himself, his colleagues and his son who needs institutional help. He skillfully portrays Philip as a man suffering increasing desperation as his world falls apart. Kwiat’s final scene in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee is powerful as well as heartbreakingly pitiful as he cries out, “Leave me alone … I’m a citizen and a human being. You can’t take these away from me.” It is a brave performance. Theatregoers will not forget his exit near the play’s end.

Tillie’s right-hand gal Fannie is effectively played by Dramaworks veteran Margery Lowe, who also plays a minor role as Mrs. Kramer in “The Goldbergs” show itself. Lowe comes through in these important supporting roles – the efficient, buoyantly supporting Fannie and her brief moments at a window as Mrs. Kramer, bellowing out “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!”

From left, Elizabeth Dimon and Margery Lowe. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

Long-time Dramaworks veteran Rob Donohoe plays a number of roles, including Eli Mintz as Uncle David in “The Goldbergs,” adding humor and Greek chorus support in the background, Yiddish accent and all. Mintz is the play’s Cassandra, always thinking the “Red List” will metastasize into something serious for the show (he was right, of course). His interaction with Philip in particular is filled with much needed humor and affection for his colleague. 

Donohoe is also the voice of the grand inquisitor, a senator from the House Un-American Activities Committee who bellows out at Philip with eerie “witch hunt” hysteria assisted by David Thomas’ sound design.

Dramaworks veteran Tom Wahl is a jack-of-all-trades in this production, playing a number of roles and succeeding amazingly. First and foremost, he is Walter Hart, “The Goldbergs” production manager on the set, played with exasperation on making deadlines with clipboard in hand. He also plays other key roles including Roger Addington, the General Foods executive who first brings the “Red Channels List” to Tillie’s attention, requesting that Philip, whose name is on the list, be removed from the show. He eventually backs down when Tillie responds, “No one tells Gertrude Berg to fire anyone.” While Addington takes her no as a temporary answer, he warns Tillie worse is to come. 

As Frank Stanton, president of CBS, Wahl expresses empathy yet the firmness which earned Stanton’s reputation at CBS as being a “son of a bitch.” It is an affecting scene when Stanton demands that Tillie fire Philip. Tillie refuses, yet again. The stalemate ends in the cancellation of the show. 

Wahl plays still another “one of those men in suits” – a young ad executive who Tillie hopes will help find a sponsor for her reconstituted show which has been off the air for a year (now without Philip as her TV husband and set in the suburbs). Wahl’s ad man recounts the facts: “It’s 1955. Nobody has ethnicity anymore … Celebrate the Unity … People want to see ordinary Americans … Molly Goldberg had a good run. Let her rest in peace.” And while sensitively delivered by Wahl, Tillie now stands alone finally mouthing the plaintive line, so achingly delivered by Dimon, “Molly, Goodbye Molly.”

There are many seamless scene transitions in this memory play and this is where the excellence of Director Bill Hayes and his technical crew shine. Where actors need to be with split second timing is a key to the play’s success and this work is generally invisible to the audience, without curtains being drawn. It leads to lively pacing, and Hayes knows when actors should slow their pace, or even pause, to let the play’s funny moments land securely.

Lighting is critical in this play, such as the subtle flickering of lights when a TV showing “The Milton Berle Show” or “I Love Lucy” is on, or the sudden burst of full lighting when cutting to the studio scenes. Or most effectively (and affecting) the lighting during the hearings with Philip in a solitary spot, alone on stage except for Tillie watching from her memory in the shadows. And then during the news report of Philip Loeb’s suicide, the lights slowing coming up in muted yellow – bathing the audience itself as if they’re part of the same story today. Dramaworks’ newcomer Christina Watanabe’s lighting design is remarkable.

Sound design is usually important for mood and background, but it takes on another level in this show. It has the requisite musical interludes, especially different takes on the music that was associated with “The Goldbergs,” such as Toselli’s gentle waltz, “Italian Serenade.” Sound designer David Thomas also had the challenge of delivering lines from the play, electronically enhanced echoed questions being thrown to Philip during the hearings. There was also the cacophony of news headlines crying out about McCarthy’s accusations, teletype clacking in the background and haunting sounds in Tillie’s mind.

Dramaworks’ resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe cleverly decided to go with red, white and blue palettes against the barren stage, in particular Tillie’s red dress with a wide satin collar and pearls, a jacket to delineate important meetings. Of course, TV’s Molly Goldberg became easily identifiable with her added white apron as a “typical” housewife of her time.

This is an important play, constantly underscoring themes that are so significant and germane to our current, often stressful times. Joseph McDonough’s “Ordinary Americans” joins the canon of classic plays honorably based on aspects of our own dark American history – ones that remind us to heed our past.

“Ordinary Americans” runs 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 Kwiat and Elizabeth Dimon. Photo by Alicia Donelan

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