Chicago Theatre Review
Ignorant People Are Dangerous
Born Yesterday – Remy Bumppo
Today, for many people in this country, ignorance is no longer scoffed at. Learning and the acquisition of knowledge seem to currently be taking a back seat to complacency and allowing others to tell you what you should know. Scholarship and enlightenment are shunned as highbrow and elitist. “Fake News” is being called out for what it is—lies, fabrications and opinons—yet it’s continually accepted as the truth. A person is no longer simply advised, but told what he can or cannot say and do. This goes against the very principles that founded this great country.
Following WWII and in the succession of President Harry Truman, writer Garson Kanin found his inspiration for creating a very funny play that also served as his response to America’s political scene of the post-war years. Yet, it’s uncanny how timely this 1946 comedy plays today. It’s also unbelievably wise and prophetic for Remy Bumppo to have chosen this particular play to close its impressive 20th season in 2017. Kanin’s 70-year-old satire, with its comic observations, could easily have been written yesterday about our 45th president; and the opening night audience not only recognized these similarities but appreciated them with loud applause and knowing laughter.
Billie Dawn was a chorus girl in the musical theatre when she was first spotted by wealthy thug, Harry Brock. He wooed and impressed the pretty, blond chorine with expensive gifts and charmed her with the promise of a cushy, carefree life. Eight years later, Billie is still the sweetly naive girl that she once was, but she’s become bored with her life. She does very little except what Harry directs her to do. Billie’s unenlightened about so much that goes on around her. She’s unaware that there’s more to life, and Billie doesn’t even realize that she doesn’t know these things.
Now that the couple has relocated in Washington D.C. for a while, Harry’s decided that Billie’s empty-headedness could be detrimental to his financial success and aspirations. Following a brusque interview with Paul Verrall, a writer for The New Republic, Harry is persuaded by his toady lawyer, Ed Devery, to hire the columnist as a tutor to help educate Billie. That way she’ll no longer be an embarrassment when in mixed company. The once naive, ignorant chorus girl suddenly understands a lot about life, even more than Harry, and the tables abruptly begin to turn.
This terrific play, not seen in Chicago for quite some time, is expertly directed here by David Darlow. He follows the company’s recent production of “Pygmalion” with this more contemporary story about another young woman, for whom education is the key to unlocking a better future. Darlow wisely focuses his production on Billie Dawn, played with childish wonder and giddy delight by Eliza Stoughton. A prominent actress in such excellent productions as “Fallen Angels” and “Both Your Houses,” Ms. Stoughton absolutely owns the stage, from the first moment she first enters, to her last exit. The actress uses the same pinched, nasal vocal quality that made the original Billie, Judy Holliday, so famous. But Stoughton is much more than simply a skilled impressionist. Notice the way she uses her eyes to tell the story, the sly little expressions she flashes at the other characters, particularly Harry. Ms. Stoughton consciously employs body language that says even much more than her dialogue. She is, in a word, magnificent.
Sean M. Sullivan, as Harry Brock, makes his auspicious debut with this company, and familiar face and artistic associate, Greg Matthew Anderson, skillfully plays Paul Verrall. Both actors nicely hold their own against Ms. Stoughton’s femme fatale. They’re both equally outstanding, with the lanky Mr. Sullivan bullishly playing the loud, blustering, corrupt junk dealer/multimillionaire, constantly berating and manipulating and manhandling his girlfriend. He treats Billie like an object, a prized show dog, instead of a human being. But in the end, what goes around comes around. Anderson portrays the shy, nerdy, bespectacled Washington writer with sophisticated intelligence, but with a sharp wit and a contagious passion for knowledge. The more Billie is determined crack every book she finds and to learn about the world around her, the deeper Verrall becomes attracted to her. This romantic triangle, filled with humor and a bit of tension, has the audience cheering for Billie and Paul.
The supporting cast is excellent. Shawn Douglass teeters through his role as Harry Brock’s mostly inebriated, well-paid kept lawyer, who cushions all his boss’ demands and insults with liquor. Drew Shirley makes a fine flunky as Harry’s young cousin and personal assistant, Eddie Brock. Brian Parry, an actor who’s reliable in any role he undertakes, such as a recent production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” at Redtwist Theatre, is thoroughly enjoyable as the easily-bought crooked congressman, Senator Hedges. Also making her Remy Bumppo debut, Maggie Clennon Reberg is hilarious as Mrs. Hedges, doing double duty as Helen, a no-nonsense chambermaid. Drew Schad, a familiar face at Shattered Globe, makes his debut, as well, in dual cameo roles of an Assistant Hotel Manager and as an Italian barber, hired to give Harry a quick shave before an impromptu party.
The show also looks and sounds as great as it plays. Grant Sabin’s luxurious, palatial hotel suite is pretty, polished and period-perfect, as are the sumptuous costumes fashioned by Izumi Inaba. Christopher Kriz has created a delicious aural palette of sound, including an array of 40’s classic hits, along with his own original music. Michael Rourke takes us through the evening and into late night and early morning, with his sensitive lighting design. In addition to the many wall sconces that dot the hotel room, watch how Rourke subtly paints the sun setting through the hotel picture window.
During one scene, Paul Verrall is asked why he’s so passionate about learning and helping educate Billie Dawn. He responds, “It’s sort of a cause. I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” And, as we observe in this top-notch production of Garson Kanin’s play, here’s an excellent example of life imitating art…and, despite all the humor, it’s troubling to imagine.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 22-April 30 by Remy Bumppo Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.remybumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.