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Article posted: 5/9/2013 6:00 AM

Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's 'Trumbo' a portrait of the artist as a patriot

By Barbara Vitello

Not a lot happens over the course of "Trumbo -- Red, White & Blacklisted," the two-hander about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo running at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn.

More of a portrait than a play, this theatrical event unfolds as a series of monologues which reveal through Trumbo's own words the convictions that led to his incarceration and the talent that made him a legend.

Written by Trumbo's son Christopher, this epistolary homage emerges as a portrait of the artist as patriot, brought vividly and compassionately to life by Ben Werling, as the titular character, and BTE ensemble member Bryan Burke as his admiring son.

It begins at a 1947 congressional hearing where Trumbo -- who penned such films as "Spartacus," "Roman Holiday," "Papillon" and "Lonely Are the Brave" -- declined to answer questions about his involvement in the Communist Party. That defiance earned him an 11-month federal prison sentence for contempt of Congress. It also got him blacklisted by film studio executives who refused to hire him and nine other writers, directors and producers who declined to testify. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they were the first of hundreds of artists and filmmakers denied employment during the 1940s and 1950s because of their perceived political affiliations. Trumbo and others continued to write under pseudonyms until 1960, when Kurt Douglas and Otto Preminger announced that Trumbo had written "Spartacus" and "Exodus," effectively ending the blacklist.

"Trumbo" -- comprised of eloquently concise letters -- reveals a writer of formidable talent possessed of fierce wit, profound compassion and a playful sense of humor.

The former comes in the form of a withering denunciation of a traitorous ex-colleague whom he compares to those "shuddering, exquisite, sensitive men who quietly deplore injustice while dining upon its victim." Then there is the scathing letter to an elementary school principal lambasting the PTA whose disapproval of him led their children to ostracize his daughter. The snub, he wrote, forced her to confront for the first time "barbarism parading as American virtue."

A poem written for his son's 10th birthday reveals a sense of whimsy. An acerbic letter to a phone company reflects a caustic wit, and an innuendo-filled note penned for his college-age son suggests that, in this middle-aged father, a cheeky adolescent boy still resided.

As for Trumbo's compassion, it's evident in his condolences to the mother of a dead colleague. Simply stated -- and expressed with genuine, yet modulated affection by Werling -- it is a letter all the more potent for its restraint.

While Christopher Trumbo's play lionizes its subject, Werling doesn't. There's no sugarcoating here. Werling's nicely prickly performance conveys the arrogance and impatience of the man Ring Lardner Jr. eulogized as "wise, funny, greedy, generous, vain, biting."

Yet, it's an empathetic performance. There's a tempered graciousness to Werling's delivery of Trumbo's 1970 speech accepting the Writers Guild Laurel Award that suggests reconciliation, not resignation.

Calling the blacklist a time of evil, Trumbo observes that no one who survived came through untouched or without sin.

"It will do no good to search for heroes or saints or devils because there were none," he said, "only victims."

Also deserving mention is Kurt Naebig's unobtrusive direction, Burke's fine work in multiple supporting roles and Galen G. Ramsey's multi platform set. Its backdrop consists of projections of archival news photographs, Trumbo family snapshots and, in one memorable scene, an American flag. But the most striking visual is that of the 10 empty chairs paired with 10 glowing lamps, a reminder that despite their physical absence, the proscribed were indeed present.

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