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Theater review: The Giddy Joy of Seeing TN Rep’s ‘The Columnist’

The Columnist 8“…What a day this has been! What a rare mood I’m in! Why, it’s almost like being in love!

There’s a smile on my face for the whole human race! Why, it’s almost like being in love!…”

From “Almost Like Being in Love” in Brigadoon

A review of David Auburn’s riveting play The Columnist that begins with lyrics from an Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical admittedly doesn’t initially make sense. I beg your indulgence and promise the explanation regarding those lyrics will be quick and painless.

The joyful words quoted above ran in my head Saturday night as I walked with my wife to our car following Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s opening night performance of Auburn’s terrific story. If I’m too goofy please forgive, but good writing and good acting produce happy giddiness in me!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to all involved for a delicious experience. Now if the readers of this review will indulge me further I’ll explain my theatergoing rapture.

It starts with the script Auburn was working on when he arrived in Nashville a few years back to be the Ingram New Works Fellow. There was a 2010 reading here before the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Proof returned to New York; after further development Manhattan Theatre Club presented a limited-engagement Broadway run in 2012 starring the great John Lithgow.

The Columnist 6Auburn’s fast-moving and thoroughly engrossing two-act drama centers on a fascinating historic figure: longtime Washington columnist Joseph Alsop. (For more background on the man and this play please read my interview with Auburn, director René Copeland and leading actor David Alford.)

There’s never a moment that doesn’t vibrate with life in all its humor and pain, from a Moscow beginning where Alsop is at his height while being quite vulnerable to the shocks of Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam conflict that altered America (and in more than one way devastated Alsop and his career) in just a few short years.

This is historical drama writ both broad and intimate, since huge events are touched on while we view individual lives irretrievably altered by the era and human circumstance. It’s not just Alsop and then up-and-coming former Tennessean reporter turned New York Times man-in-Southeast-Asia David Halberstam that come alive again thanks to Auburn’s intelligence and wit; Alsop’s friend-turned-wife Susan Mary (along with her daughter Abigail) and his brother Stewart are brought before us, as are two other characters: a young Soviet named Andrei and a young American named Philip. All ultimately form a picture of the middle 20th Century that is both distinct to its time and a reminder that contradictions in the human condition are timeless.

Bringing their talent and energy to the words and characters of The Columnist are as fine a cast as anyone can wish for: Alford as Joseph Alsop, Jeff Boyet as Stewart Alsop, Jenny Littleton as Susan Mary Alsop, Amanda Card as Abigail, Patrick Waller as Andrei, Benjamin Reed as David Halberstam and Will Miranne as Philip.

The Columnist 9It’s funny when Alford delivers the bon mots sprinkled throughout the play, but the actor – who read the part at the 2010 Ingram New Works Festival – knows how to provide so much more and does. Among other emotional strands there’s growing anger and frustration in Joe as the story progresses, and Alford’s great skills reveal those layers of his character so truthfully that his Alsop seems to both create and take away all the oxygen in Johnson Theater at various points in the performance. Alford’s remarkable acting ability has been on display here for many years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of his work here; as remarkable as his career has been, this may be the best performance I’ve ever seen him give. That good fortune is certainly reason enough to love this production, but in addition to his work and Auburn’s writing more riches await audiences that see this show before its run ends May 4.

Those riches include the grace and pain conveyed by Boyet and Littleton, who match the luminous acting of Alford in every moment they are onstage; pitch-perfect work by Card and Waller; and a delightful return to Nashville by Reed, who after his promising start at Belmont University – and engaging work in such local productions as 2009’s Three Gods Walk Into a Bar for the sadly-departed People’s Branch Theatre – left for Houston, got an MFA from the University of Houston and recently starred as Hamlet for Houston Shakespeare Festival. It’s wonderful to hear about the successes he’s having as his young career progresses, but even better to watch him in this show, think about his good acting before he left Nashville and note the maturation of his performance abilities from then until now. (Miranne has no lines in this show, but the fine presence and poise of this Tennessee Rep intern and David Lipscomb University sophomore is a good sign, among many recent ones, that another fine generation of Nashville performing artists is beginning to grace local stages).

As has become standard in recent seasons Copeland and her offstage cohorts bring know-how and industry to the production that provides the final polish on The Columnist’s dramatic diamond. To say Gary C. Hoff has designed another great set is no more surprising than saying evening follows afternoon, but it’s still true; Alsop’s well-appointed Georgetown home, a Moscow hotel bedroom, a Saigon bar and a New York auditorium are some of the places we get to go to while staying in our seats at the intimate Johnson. Yes, once again Auburn’s words and Copeland’s actors help to take us there, but we really know where we’ve arrived because of Hoff’s terrific scenic work.

The Columnist 10Kudos too should go as they have so many times before to the rest of the Tennessee Rep’s dream team of artisans – Costume Designer Trish Clark, Lighting Designer Phillip Franck, Sound Designer Paul Carrol Binkley (among other things, thanks for the Beatles incidental), Technical Director Tyler Axt, Properties Master Evelyn Pearson and Stage Manager Erin Ramsey. If anyone’s sighing at this point because they feel my review is just a laundry list, get over it – these folks and their unnamed-in-this-review colleagues turn the ordinary into the extraordinary on a daily basis and deserve as much credit for my wonderfully delirious state Saturday night as the rest of Tennessee Rep’s company.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to go see The Columnist. Obviously I can’t and won’t promise you’ll end up with your head in the clouds as I did, but I’m confident what you’ll see and hear will offer further proof (no Auburn-related wordplay intended) that Nashville theater is hitting heights now it likely hasn’t ever hit before.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s “The Columnist” continues through May 4 in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater (505 Deaderick St.). Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays as well as 2:30 p.m. April 27 and May 4. There are talkback sessions after each Friday night performance; ‘Rep Unclassified’ after each Saturday Matinee performance; and meet and greet the cast after each Saturday night performance. Tickets (Starting at $42.50; student tickets start at $11.50 with valid ID) and more info are available through www.tennesseerep.org.

The Columnist 7*Photos of David Alford, Jenny Littleton, Jeff Boyet and Amanda Card by Shane Burkeen courtesy Tennessee Repertory Theatre.

 

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).