The intriguing double life of prominent Republican syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop (1910-1989) provides the thought-provoking basis for David Auburn’s engrossing 2012 drama “The Columnist,” currently receiving an excellent local premiere at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
As he ascended in fame and influence in Washington, D.C. from the 1940s through the late 1960s, Joe hid his sexuality, a fact Auburn frankly details at the outset which depicts the legendary writer awakening from a tryst with a handsome tour guide in a Moscow hotel circa 1954. Afterward Joe is busted by the K.G.B, but his closeted identity looms within the entire proceedings, based on real events and predominately taking place in his posh Georgetown residence (attractively designed by Les Dersham) during the hopeful and ultimately tumultuous 1960s. Joe’s fascinating complexity (he particularly entered a marriage of convenience) bolstered by his fervent support of the Vietnam War certainly stirs emotions within this insightful character study. Even so, Auburn, best known as the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Proof,” astutely dissects Joe’s political views, especially foreign policy concerns, to balance the storytelling with intellectual bite. One of the most interesting facets of Joe’s conservative playbook rests in his peculiar distaste for Dwight Eisenhower and great affection for Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy’s assassination proves pivotal here implying how persuasive Joe, who prided himself on promoting Lyndon Johnson as a vice presidential pick, would have been during Kennedy’s second term as matters at home (civil rights) and abroad (Vietnam) escalated.
Director Doug Lloyd’s cast is superbly led by David Shough, whose outstanding Guild staging of “Outside Mullingar” two months ago is still the talk of the town. The effortless Shough, tailor-made for the role, marvelously inhabits Joe as a combative, prickly, slick, vain, stodgy, and wounded quandary. Even when Auburn’s script becomes a bit heavy-handed late in Act 2 when Joe has a blast from the past, Shough avoids overkill and sustains credibility. Wendi Michael, beautifully costumed in period attire by Carol Finley, brings tenderness and fitting agitation to her portrayal of Susan Mary Alsop, Joe’s loving yet insecure wife particularly in charge of hostess duties. Rick Flynn, in one of his finest performances, is equally impactful as Joe’s younger brother Stewart who shared a column with him in their early days. Dakota Duclo, charming with a tinge of cunning ambition and dubiousness, delicately embodies Russian informant Andrei. Jenna Gomes, very strong as Susan Mary’s daughter and future hippie Abigail, and Chris Petree as pushy New York Times reporter David Halberstam also contribute to the production’s appeal along with Alexa Storar as Young Abigail and Ryan Shannon as Philip.
It helps to have some affinity for politics and American history when viewing “The Columnist,” but its age-old themes of power and secrecy thoroughly resonates to the fullest.
“The Columnist” continues through Oct. 18 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. The play is performed in 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $13 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org