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The Powerful Trumbo Strives to Illustrate What Free Speech Really Means

Nigel Reed (seated) and Jonathan Watkins in Trumbo

By John Barry | Posted 9/10/2008

Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted

By Christopher Trumbo

At Rep Stage through Sept. 28

Most father-son dramas involve serious discussions, divisions, and reconciliations. Trumbo: Red, White, and Blacklisted, currently showing at Rep Stage, doesn't follow that template at all. It's a play written by a son whose love and admiration for his father isn't overwhelming but, even given his father's failings, seems to be unconditional.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) was a prolific Hollywood screenwriter and author of the anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. He joined the Communist Party USA in 1943. In '47, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and quizzed about his past associations with the party. He stood up to HUAC's bullying of the Hollywood 10--of which he was a member--went to prison for doing so, and was blacklisted for longer than a decade.

The narrator of this story, and the writer of the play, is Christopher Trumbo, Dalton's long-suffering son. Played by Jonathan Watkins, Christopher spends most of the play in the background, guiding his father's story. He looks at his father fondly, as an eccentric but principled hero. He creates a bond with 21st-century audience members, who may never have seen Trumbo's movies (such as Spartacus and Roman Holiday) but have heard of HUAC.

With the help of Christopher's narration, Dalton begins his own story. He became a prolific Hollywood screenwriter in the late 1930s and early '40s. He spent time as a journalist in World War II. Then he joined the Communist Party USA in '43. When that attracted attention a few years later, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked for names, he refused to testify against his fellow screenwriters, spent 11 months in jail for contempt of Congress, and then spent 10 years on the Hollywood blacklist, struggling to get by and (when he could) getting his screenplays published under a pseudonym.

What makes this production unique isn't the story itself. By the end of Trumbo, it is more about writing than it is about HUAC. Most of the lines are delivered by Trumbo himself, verbatim from collected letters, writings, and selected testimony. Actor Nigel Reed has the measured intensity that delivers these monologues at one remove, occasionally dripping with irony, but riveting in intensity. Even when Dalton has to tell an old friend that he can't pay his debts, he seems to love writing the letter to do it with. And in the process of each delivery, Nigel manages to transform the audience into his target.

The opening scene begins with Trumbo's testimony before HUAC, with his son Christopher playing the role of a senator. As he refuses to answer the questions, to rat on his friends, Dalton takes particular pleasure in twisting his answers to shine a light on the hypocrisy of his interrogators. Reed delivers it with an ironic deadpan as he forces his interrogators to tie themselves into logical knots. It's a tension he keeps up throughout a play that has only a perfunctory plot and no additional characters.

Like many writers, Dalton enjoys the deviations from the path as much as the plot line of his life. Several monologues stand out. At one moment, he reminds a friend who sends him a manuscript that he loves tearing writers apart. Then he gives a rousing speech about what it means to be an American. Then, suddenly, as we expect the story to end on a high note, he goes into a long discourse on onanism. By the end, it's clear what Trumbo's crowning virtue is: He's determined to tell his own story, regardless of the paths that people try to send him down.

The play is helped along by the set design of Milagros Ponce de Leon, who creates an environment that mixes elements of a federal penitentiary along with a strong visual display of U.S. history. As Christopher Trumbo, Watkins, meanwhile, is an appealing presence, even though his character remains largely in the background, as he listens to his father ramble on. And director Steven Carpenter maintains the play's essential minimalism while keeping it in motion.

Ultimately, in this fascinating production, the essential contact is between Dalton Trumbo and the audience. If he opens the play as a heroic, if grumpy, figure, Trumbo gradually becomes one of us. That melds effectively with this play's message: When we start giving up on our freedom to express ourselves, everyone suffers. Trumbo, like few other plays, drives that point home.

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