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Eleanor Roosevelt: Still Waiting for Her Closeup

Peter Dreier

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Olivia Williams (left) as Eleanor Roosevelt. (Photo: Nicola Dove)

Many younger Americans probably know very little about Eleanor Roosevelt, and if their first encounter with her is the new film Hyde Park on Hudson, what they’ll learn is incredibly misleading and inaccurate. Other films – including Sunrise At Campobello (1960), the two-part Eleanor & Franklin HBO mini-series (1976), Eleanor, First Lady of the World (1982) and Warm Springs (2005) – have depicted different aspects of her life. But Hollywood can’t seem to make a film that accurately portrays the depth and influence of Eleanor’s radicalism.

Hyde Park on Hudson focuses on the relationship between her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Bill Murray) and his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney) during a weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of England are visiting the Roosevelts at their second home in upstate New York. The film shows FDR and Stuckley having a sexual love affair, although many historians believe that their relationship was primarily a flirtation. Given its focus on the affair, perhaps it is not surprising that the film treats Eleanor (Olivia Williams) primarily as a ceremonial helpmate whose major function was to help FDR negotiate the social rituals of being president. In the film, the biggest controversy Eleanor dealt with was whether to serve hot dogs to the British royals.

In reality, Eleanor’s life – before she met FDR, during the 12 years she served as First Lady and after FDR died in 1945 – was filled with important public controversies, including her activism around such issues as workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. She became FDR’s most important, and most progressive, adviser. FDR was the most powerful president in American history, and Eleanor (who died 50 years ago last month) wielded her own power, sometimes behind the scenes but often in public, breaking the mold for first ladies. No first lady before or since – not even Hillary Clinton – has had as much influence while her husband was president.

Eleanor consistently pushed FDR to the left on key issues and appointments. The left-leaning members of FDR’s inner circle (including Labor Secretary Francis Perkins, Agriculture Secretary, and later Vice President, Henry Wallace and Harry Hopkins, who formulated and ran many New Deal relief programs) often conspired with Eleanor to make sure he heard the views of progressive activists.

Throughout her life, Eleanor fought on behalf of America’s, and the world’s, most vulnerable people. Over time, she became friends with a widening circle of union activists, feminists, civil rights crusaders and radicals whose ideas she embraced and advocated for – both as FDR’s wife and adviser and as a political figure in her own right.

Born in 1884 and descended from a long line of privilege, Eleanor nevertheless had a difficult childhood. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was an early influence on her social consciousness, taking her with him when he visited the Children’s Aid Society or served up Thanksgiving dinner to newsboys. By the time Roosevelt was 10, both her parents had died. She was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who wanted to groom her for New York’s elite society. Her prominent relatives included her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when Eleanor was 17.

Her early education consisted of a private tutor and a year in an Italian convent school. Her first and most influential mentor was Marie Souvestre, who ran Allenswood, a feminist, progressive boarding school for girls outside London that Eleanor attended from 1898 to 1902. The school taught classical languages and the arts, and Souvestre gave Roosevelt special instruction in history and philosophy. Souvestre was a demanding thinker who challenged her students with her liberal ideas against colonialism and anti-Semitism. She invited Eleanor to be her traveling companion through France and Italy during holiday breaks from school and encouraged her to be an independent and confident woman.

In 1902, Eleanor’s grandmother insisted she return to the United States to get down to the business of becoming a debutante. Eleanor was nearly 6 feet tall and willowy, with prominent teeth and a weak chin – not the social belle that her mother had been and that her grandmother wished her to be.

Eleanor quickly realized that she preferred volunteering with social reform groups to going to fancy balls. From 1902 to 1903, she volunteered at the Riverton Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, teaching exercise and dance to low-income immigrants. Unlike her peers, who arrived in carriages, she insisted on taking public transportation, forcing herself to overcome her fears and walking even at night through the Bowery, a low-rent area.

She also became immersed in the National Consumers League (NCL), led by pioneering social reformer Florence Kelley. Through the NCL, she investigated and publicized dreadful working conditions in garment factories, known as sweatshops. She also met many progressive activists who shaped her political consciousness.

In 1902, she was riding a train when her distant cousin Franklin, a Harvard student, happened to board, and they spent the next two hours in easy conversation. That began their discreet romance, which he at first kept hidden from his domineering mother. It was by accompanying Eleanor that Franklin was first exposed to New York’s dismal tenements. For the rest of their marriage, Eleanor was FDR’s unofficial guide and conscience regarding the suffering of the poor, workers, African Americans and women.

They were married in 1905, when she was 20 and he 22, with her Uncle Theodore walking her down the aisle. During the first several years of marriage and young motherhood, she grew increasingly depressed under the thumb of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who insisted on running the household. Eleanor was able to escape Sara’s domination when the couple moved to Albany, New York, after FDR was elected to the state legislature in 1910. She learned that she had a gift for politics and soon became one of FDR’s most trusted advisers. She also lobbied for causes she believed in – eliminating poverty, improving working conditions, women’s rights and education – and was better at connecting with people than was FDR.

By 1916, the couple had had six children, including one son who died as a baby. Franklin’s appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913 brought the Roosevelts to Washington, DC, and was the beginning of national prominence. It also marked a difficult turning point in their relationship, when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s long-term affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer, one of several of FDR’s extra-marital relationships. Deeply distressed, she offered him a divorce. They remained married, however, in a loyal political partnership. Eleanor turned to others for emotional support and intimacy. According to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor loved and frequently traveled with Lorena Hickok, an AP reporter assigned to follow her when she was the First Lady. Their daily letters included both political observations and expressions of love.

World War I offered Eleanor an outlet for her organizing talents. She organized a Union Station canteen for American soldiers on their way to training camps, led Red Cross activities, supervised the knitting rooms at the Navy League and spoke at patriotic rallies. She visited wounded soldiers in the hospital and led an effort to improve conditions at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental hospital in Washington.

During the Red Scare following World War I, Eleanor renewed her reform impulses. She became active in several groups that the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, considered dangerously radical. She coordinated the League of Women Voters’ legislative efforts, mobilizing members to lobby for bills. In 1922, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League of working-class women and radical activists. She taught classes, raised money and participated in the WTUL’s policy debates and legislative actions, including working for bills to regulate maximum hours and minimum wages for women workers. Through the WTUL, Eleanor forged a long-term friendship with Rose Schneiderman – a socialist union organizer from New York – with whom she walked picket lines. J. Edgar Hoover, a close aide to Palmer who later became FBI director, kept a file on Eleanor for many years.

As FDR’s political fortunes rose – first to governor of New York in 1928 and then to president in 1932 – Eleanor constantly had to find her footing as a public person. While governor, FDR was stricken with polio, which left him unable to walk. Eleanor became his eyes and ears, investigating conditions at hospitals, asylums and prisons.

Eleanor’s involvement with reform movements prepared her to become the most influential and politically progressive First Lady in American history. “No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband and holding his eyes firmly [and saying] to him ‘Franklin, I think you should’ or, ‘Franklin, surely you will not’ will ever forget the experience,” wrote Rexford Tugwell, a key FDR aide.

She became a key player in the Democratic Party, not only mobilizing voters, but also pushing the party to support progressive legislation and to give women a larger voice in party affairs. She effectively pushed FDR to appoint women (including Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member) to key positions in government. She developed a tight circle of close women friends and social reformers who were her main confidants.

When she became First Lady in 1933, Eleanor devoted considerable time to those hardest hit by poverty, visiting an encampment of World War I veterans (called Bonus Marchers) in Washington, sharecroppers in the South, and people on breadlines in San Francisco and in the slums of Puerto Rico. Her public support for union organizing drives among coal miners, garment workers, textile workers and tenant farmers (including the racially integrated and left-wing Southern Tenant Farmers Union) lent visibility and credibility to their efforts. Eleanor was a longtime supporter and an occasional visitor to the Highlander Folk School, a radical training center for labor and civil rights activists in rural Tennessee.

As First Lady, Roosevelt donated the proceeds from her 1932-1933 radio broadcasts to the Women’s Trade Union League and promoted the WTUL in her columns and speeches. She invited women and union activists, including Schneiderman, to the White House and Hyde Park, seating them next to FDR so he could hear their concerns. As Schneiderman recalled in her autobiography, Eleanor overcame the trappings of privilege to become “a born trade unionist.”

Soon after becoming First Lady, she began holding her own press conferences, for women reporters only, in part to preserve their jobs during the Depression. Her influence was such that the president often had her float ideas to journalists and others to see how they would fly politically.

Eleanor was much bolder than FDR in opposing racism, segregation and lynching. She became a close friend of Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as his advocate within the White House, and she made a point of publicly joining the civil rights organization. She urged FDR to support federal legislation to end lynching, but he refused to support the bill, worried that southern white voters – almost all of them loyal Democrats – would abandon the party.

In November 1938, 1,500 people, African Americans and whites, packed the city auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, to kick off a four-day Southern Conference on Human Welfare. The gathering was organized to address the South’s serious social problems – including poverty, poor education and the infamous poll tax that prevented black citizens from voting. The next morning, the auditorium was surrounded by police. Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the integrated crowd to separate their seating according to race or face arrest. The crowd obeyed, with black people sitting on one side and white people on the other. Eleanor arrived later, accompanied by African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Aubrey Williams, head of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration. Eleanor sized up the situation and sat down on the side with the African Americans. One of the policemen tapped her on the shoulder and told her to move. Instead, she calmly moved her chair between the white and black sections and there she remained.

On civil rights issues, she agitated; he waffled. But sometimes she prevailed. In 1939, she resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization refused to rent its Constitution Hall to opera singer Marian Anderson, who had previously sung at the White House. Instead, Roosevelt worked behind the scenes to arrange for Anderson to sing to 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. In February 1940, she shared the stage with the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas at a National Sharecroppers Week forum at a New York hotel. Later that year, she persuaded FDR to meet with the NAACP’s White, and labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who were threatening to hold a mass march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African Americans from key defense industry jobs as the nation was preparing for war. After two meetings, FDR agreed to issue an executive order against racial discrimination in defense employment if the civil rights leaders would cancel their proposed march. He did, and they did.

Eleanor developed a strong voice as a public speaker and prolific writer of magazine articles and books. Her syndicated column, “My Day,” about her life in the White House, appeared six times a week in some 180 papers around the country. She also lectured and spoke frequently on the radio. Through her column and radio broadcasts, she described the desperate conditions and human suffering she saw during her travels, but she also gave voice to the activists fighting for change and the people helped by the New Deal’s relief programs.

The American people found Eleanor approachable and caring, even as she was ridiculed in the press as being both dowdy and a publicity hound. During her first year in the White House, more than 300,000 people wrote to her. She personally answered many of the letters and forwarded the rest to federal agencies for a response.

Eleanor was actively involved for decades in promoting peace and international understanding as well. She tried to convince FDR to support the Permanent Court of International Justice, commonly called the World Court, which had been set up after World War I to settle disputes among nations. Privately FDR agreed with the idea, but he considered it politically too risky and allowed the Senate to reject US membership in the court by a seven-vote margin.

Starting in 1939, as the Nazis were engaged in genocide against Jews, Eleanor fought for special legislation to admit Jewish refugees, especially children, to the United States, but without FDR’s public support the idea went nowhere.

During World War II – in which all four of the Roosevelt sons served – Eleanor visited troops in London and in the South Pacific. She won over Admiral William Halsey, who had derided her for what he considered her do-goodism and meddling, when she spent exhausting days personally comforting wounded soldiers. “She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area,” Halsey said.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor assumed she would retire, but the new president, Harry S. Truman, sought her advice. He also appointed her to the five-person US delegation at the first meeting of the UN General Assembly, held in London in 1946. She played a surprising and pivotal role, addressing the full assembly, without notes, and swaying the vote against forced repatriation of refugees, allowing them to choose where they wished to settle.

For three years, Eleanor lobbied, debated, and maneuvered to get the United Nations to adopt a statement on human rights. In 1948, she chaired the UN Human Rights Commission, and under her leadership the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, passed at 3 a.m. on December 10, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that still serves as a benchmark for activists around the world.

Throughout the 1950s, Eleanor remained active in public affairs. She continued to write her newspaper column, endorsed and campaigned for liberal Democrats, appeared frequently on television and radio shows discussing current events and averaged 150 speaking lectures a year in the United States and around the world.

At the height of the Cold War, Eleanor challenged the prevailing political wisdom. In 1953, for example, she was a charter subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a controversial political newsletter written by the radical journalist whom conservatives and even some liberals accused of being a subversive. In 1960, she spoke to 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden – along with socialist Norman Thomas, labor leader Walter Reuther, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and singer Harry Belafonte – at a rally against the escalating arms race between the US and Russia, sponsored by the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.

That year, Eleanor wrote one of the first checks to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a radical civil rights organization that student activists had formed to sustain the momentum of the sit-in movement at Southern lunch counters to protest segregation. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Eleanor as chair of a new Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Although Eleanor died the next year, just before the commission issued its final report, she had already played an important role in shaping the commission’s work, which helped catalyze the modern feminist movement.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a bold progressive and, from the 1930s until her death, one of the most well-known and admired people in the United States and around the world. There is probably no person alive today – with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela – who commands that kind of respect. It is time for Hollywood to make a film about Eleanor, the radical Roosevelt.

(This post first appeared on Truthout and is republished with permission.)

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‘Skeleton Crew’ Is a Play With a Moral Spine

Set in a Detroit automobile outfitting plant, Dominique Morisseau’s drama grabs you from the start with its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle for dignity and self-respect.

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Deborah Klugman

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Kelly McCreary and Caroline Stefanie Clay. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

Working-class men and women of color are rarely front and center in today’s media and, likewise, are presented all too occasionally on the American stage. So it’s buoying to see that trend bucked in playwright Dominique Morisseau’s percipient and well-crafted drama, Skeleton Crew. The play is the final installment in her Detroit  Project Trilogy; the first, Paradise Blue, is set in the 1940s amidst displacement caused by urban renewal and gentrification, while the second, Detroit ’67, transpires on the eve of the 1967 Detroit riots sparked by a police action.

Directed by Patricia McGregor at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, Skeleton Crew is a play with a moral spine. It takes place in 2008, when the shrinking U.S. auto industry is being further downsized. Morisseau’s engaging quartet of characters — Faye (Caroline Stefanie Clay), Dez (Armari Cheatom), Shanita (Kelly McCreary) and Reggie (DB Woodside) – are employed at an automobile outfitting plant. Faye, Dez and Shanita are workers on the line while Reggie (who has a wife and kids, and has pulled himself together after a troubled youth) is their supervisor.

The first three customarily mingle in their break room (designer Rachel Myers’ impressively cluttered, dingy and detailed set), trading the sort of familiar barbs and genuine concern for each other common among longtime co-workers. They also face off on philosophy: Upper-middle-aged Faye and the younger, pregnant Shanita take pride in their labor, while Dez, though a good worker, is a malcontent scornful of management and firm in the belief that everyone needs to watch out for himself. He’s a thorn in Reggie’s side, for while Reggie wants to be supportive of his workers, he must act at the behest of higher management. For his part, Dez resents Reggie’s authority, and a palpable unease exists between them.

Besides this male matchup, we’re made privy to Dez’s attraction to Shanita, who mostly turns away his advances, but every now and then displays a hint of interest. Most poignant is Reggie’s regard and affection for the lesbian Faye, which has roots in his boyhood when she loved, and lived, with his now-deceased mom.

These people’s various predicaments intensify when rumors spread of the plant’s shutdown — a disaster for all, but a particular calamity for the already near-broke Faye who, one year short of retirement, would lose her pension. The crisis forces each of these people to make a choice.

A sound piece of social realism, Skeleton Crew grabs you from the start in its focus on blue-collar men and women, and their struggle against odds for dignity and self-respect. Morisseau not only furnishes these characters a platform for their travails, she endows them with strong values, big hearts and the opportunity to choose between right and wrong.

DB Woodside and Amari Cheatom. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

Unfortunately, the performance I attended did not soar. Many exchanges lacked a fresh edge. The actors certainly had their characters down, but too often they appeared to be coasting on technique. (This seemed particularly true of Clay, who performed the role to great accolades in Washington, DC in 2017, also under McGregor’s direction). Additionally, some of the stage movement was not entirely fluid; in confrontations, actors sometimes would just stand and face each other in an artificial way. And Cheatom’s interpretation of Dez struck me as a bit overly churlish and depressive: I needed more glimpses of the intelligence and edge that would secretly attract the strong, self-directed Shanita.

The most compelling moments belong to Woodside, well-cast as a man trying his best in difficult circumstances to do the right thing.


Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 8. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

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The Power of the Poster

Carol Wells, the founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, talks to Capital & Main about the enduring power of political art.

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"In Solidarity With Standing Rock" by Josh Yoder, 2016. All images courtesy the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Carol Wells remembers the exact moment she discovered her calling. An art historian at the time, she was on a trip to Nicaragua with her friend David Kunzle, a UCLA art history professor, who was collecting political posters to add to his burgeoning collection. While staying with friends, Wells watched a neighbor’s 8-year-old son approach a poster on the wall, stare at it intently, and then start to silently mouth the words. Wells was struck by how engaged the boy was. “In that moment I became obsessed with collecting posters.”

Carol Well, executive director of CSPG

Now over 40 years later, Wells is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles. Wells has amassed approximately 90,000 posters, building one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. The Center shares its collection with the public in part through curated exhibits. This year the CSPG has produced Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women by Women and its latest is To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence, running through July 15 at the Mercado La Paloma in downtown Los Angeles.

Since that encounter in Nicaragua in 1981, Wells’ obsession with collecting posters hasn’t waned. In CSPG’s nondescript West L.A. office space, Wells pulls out poster after poster, lecturing passionately on the backstory and cultural impact of each, including one that superimposes text from a New York Times interview with a shocking image of the My Lai massacre (“Q: And babies? A: And babies.”). Recently, she managed to sit down with C&M to discuss her passion.


 

Capital & Main: So, you were an art history professor, you happen to see a kid on a trip, and suddenly your life was changed forever?

From the Asociación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza
Nicaragua, 1981

Carol Wells: Yeah, I’m in Nicaragua alone in the living room with this kid. He’s looking around, and all of a sudden, he sees the poster. It was pretty big, bright green, a thick outlines of a woman holding a big basket of coffee beans. And the text in Spanish said, “In constructing the new country, we are becoming the new woman.” I see him walk over to the poster and I’m watching him mouth the words. It was a pretty sophisticated concept, so I doubt he figured it out. But I literally had this epiphany: “Oh my God. That’s how posters work.” You’re going about your daily life, and all of a sudden something breaks through the bubble, and it grabs your attention. It’s the graphic, it’s the color, it’s the combination, and it pulls you out of your head and into that poster and it makes you ask a question. “Why is this here? What is this about? What does this mean?” And every time you ask a question, you’re a different person than you were before you asked the question.

How many posters do you get a year?

We get between two to five thousand a year donated from all over the world. The bulk of our collection is [from] 1945 and later.

I assume technology has probably hurt the art form, but has it helped get the messages out?

Most people think that, and it’s actually not true. Since the internet age started, there’s actually a poster renaissance of works on paper. Because you can’t walk with your computer monitor in a demonstration. You can’t plant your monitor on your lawn.

And you can’t put a laptop on the wall…

Exactly. You want to hear a really great story? Truthdig.org published a cartoon [made by] a political cartoonist named Mr. Fish. It was during the Arab spring, and he had superimposed Che Guevara with the stylized beard and King Tut’s face, but it had Che’s beret. And it [was titled], “Walk like an Egyptian.” So, it was a reference to the music, but [it was also] a reference to what was going on the streets of Cairo. I sent it out as our poster of the week to 9,000 people. The very next day, somebody took a photograph on the street of Cairo, with somebody holding a piece of paper with that image on it. A poster can literally go around the world and people will print it out.

What struck me in viewing your exhibits is how many of these posters could still be used today, not only artistically but also, sadly, in the timeliness of their messages.

“Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?”
by Yolanda M. Lopez, 1981

We had this fabulous poster by Yolanda Lopez, a Bay Area artist, which she first did in 1978. It depicts a young man in Aztec garb pointing a finger like Uncle Sam saying, “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?” And it’s a great poster, it’s simple, not too many words, funny, provocative. So, we had an exhibit at UCLA in the mid ‘90s and there were 4 or 5 high school students standing around this poster saying, “Wow, you’ve got posters up to the minute.” And I went over to them and I said, “Look at the date. This is before you were born.”

Is that one of your goals with the exhibitions? To show the evergreen nature of this work?

Absolutely. I mean that’s why we did the police abuse exhibition now. It basically goes back five decades. It’s 50 years of posters protesting police abuse. Mainly in the United States, but also internationally.

What’s the goal for CSPG?

Well the aim right now is really to digitize the collection and get it online. We have 10% of the collection digitized. But the mission is to collect and to document, because stories get lost. All the exhibitions, they’re showing massacres, they’re showing genocide, they’re showing police abuse, they’re showing all of these horrible things. And people often ask me, “How can you look at this stuff all day long?” I said, “Because the poster artists are optimists. They believe people can change if they have the information.”

Yes, that’s the reason why they’re doing it, right?

That’s why they’re doing it, and that’s why I’m doing this, because I believe that people can change if they knew the truth.

 

“Push Back” by Art Hazelwood, 2015. The poster is part of the CSPG exhibit “To Protect & Serve? Five Decades of Posters Protesting Police Violence.”

And what happens 20, 50 years from now?

Well, my goal is to stay independent, because the other option is to become part of the university. Universities, for all the fabulous things that they do, they also censor. We did an exhibition at USC in 1992 on the 500 years since Columbus, and how the legacy of racism and exploitation and genocide continues. And one of the board of trustees was Italian and took [the exhibit] as an affront to Columbus. It really wasn’t about Columbus, it was about colonialism. And he ordered it down.

Do you have a favorite poster?

I’m always amazed at the creativity and vision of artists. Every week I’ll say, “Oh my God, how do they think of that?” But it’s always still going to be the poster I saw that kid trying to figure out. It has to be my favorite one because that one changed my life.

What makes a perfect poster?

The right balance between aesthetics and message. If you only rely on the corporate press, the New York Times and L.A. Times, for your information, you’re not going to get the side from the street, from the movement, from the activists. The posters are primary historical documents that are recording the issues that were at the time, and the passions that were at the time, and the divisions that were at the time. You’re not going to get it anyplace else.


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Blindfolds: Iranian Hostage Drama Offers Few Surprises

One of the play’s weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that spill into melodramatic shouting matches.

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Deborah Klugman

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Zachary Grant and Tracie Lockwood. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

On November 4, 1979, several hundred Iranians, mostly students, stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 60-odd hostages — 52 of whom were held captive for 444 days. It was a humiliating event for the U.S. government and, in general, a wake-up call for Americans heretofore unaware of the antipathy of many Iranians towards the United States.

Satiar Pourvasei, Zachary Grant, Tracie Lockwood and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Against the wishes of the Carter administration, a mother of one of the hostages, Barbara Timm, flew to Tehran to see her son. Hostage, by Michelle Kholos Brooks, re-imagines the exchange that took place among Barbara (Tracie Lockwood), her captive son Kevin (Zachary Grant) and two of his captors: Tehran Mary (Vaneh Assadourian), a media spokeswoman for her cause and Ebrahim (Satiar Pourvasei), a rifle-wielding guard swift to anger. The drama, some of which takes place in Barbara’s mind, shifts between the embassy, where a handcuffed, blindfolded and barefoot Kevin has been doing his best to survive, and Barbara’s Wisconsin living room, where she struggles to cope with both a controlling ex-husband and an angry mob outside her home. The latter has gathered to protest a public statement she made critical of the failed rescue attempt to free the hostages — a statement interpreted by “patriots” as her having taken the side of the revolutionaries.

As the drama progresses, scenarios begin to overlap; Kevin, always on Barbara’s mind, is physically present onstage as she disputes with her former spouse about the latter’s parental responsibility — or lack of it — and whether or not he betrayed her when they were teens, salaciously spreading the word about their intimacy. An argument also ensues between Richard and Barbara’s current husband, Ken (Jack Clinton), who accompanied Barbara to Iran and has open-heartedly raised Kevin as his own.

Directed by Elina de Santos, Hostage aims to explain and garner sympathy for both sides, but it offers few surprises or depth. One of its weaknesses is the surfeit of soap-operatic family exchanges that filter attention away from more vital dramatic themes: how far a mother is prepared to go to protect her child and the distance its pivotal character, a Midwestern matron and a Republican, will ideologically travel before the play’s catharsis (the dynamic most interesting to us). While these threads, as well as the propensity for intolerance of people on both sides of the cultural divide, are clearly most central, they get obscured for long stretches by melodramatic shouting matches between Kevin’s two fathers or the past marital problems of Barbara and Ken.

Grant turns in a well-grounded performance as the palpably fearful Kevin, drilled in compliance and anxious for his mother to understand how precipitous his situation is. But other performances on opening weekend were less persuasive. Lockwood, usually an excellent actor, did not seem entirely comfortable as the maternal lioness the playwright aims to conjure. One problem is the script, which calls for her to assertively challenge Kevin’s captors’ motives and beliefs — a device for getting us to understand where they are coming from. Some of these confrontations appear as the artifices they are. None of the other actors were able to get past the polemical nature of their roles, either. One hopes they will evolve.

Designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s no-frills set features an American flag splayed across the back wall — albeit behind a scrim, an apt reference to the covert power wielded (this time not so successfully) by our government.

Skylight Theatre, 1816½ Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat. & Mon., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 24; (213) 761-7061 or (866) 811-4111.


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Actress Speaks Out Against Lunch Shaming in School Cafeterias

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.

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Actress  Debrianna Mansini (Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad) is a passionate advocate for ending hunger in America, specifically through ending the practice of “lunch shaming” in schools. She will speak about it during The Meatball Chronicles, her solo show that opens June 2 at the Broadwater as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. She and chef Hunter Long Fox, of the Hollywood restaurant Hunter & Charlie’s, will host a celebrity luncheon to raise money to assist poor families who cannot afford the price of a school lunch. Mansini spoke to Capital & Main by phone.


Capital & Main: What exactly is lunch shaming?

Debrianna Mansini: Lunch shaming happens when a child’s family owes money to the school lunch program, and a cafeteria worker has to refuse to serve the child a hot lunch. (I don’t want to disparage cafeteria workers. A lot of them don’t want to do it — they’re required to.)

I read about it in the New York Times and it just horrified me. Shaming kids about food and poverty? This will this affect them their whole lives.

Debrianna Mansini

How does lunch shaming usually work? Are children ever denied food altogether?

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk. Some schools take away their lunch entirely. Sometimes the child gets a stamp on their hand. It’s kind of akin to having a scarlet letter.

How widespread is the problem?

An alarming number of American youngsters still can’t afford a $2.35 lunch. In 2016, 18 percent of kids were living in poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, the figure is 21 percent. The poverty rates are highest among minorities.

Yet anti-shaming legislation has been passed in New Mexico and California, has it not?

In April of 2017 New Mexico’s [Governor] Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance. And it puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

In October 2017, [California] Governor [Jerry] Brown signed SB 250. authored by state Senator Robert Hertzberg. It ensures that children will not denied a full lunch because of their parents’ debt.

Does that mean parents no longer have to pay?

The law specifically says that districts are not required to give parents a pass on not paying indefinitely. Instead it requires that districts do all they can to enroll families in the federally subsidized school lunch program and also to notify families – not bill collectors — of unpaid balances as soon as they are 10 days behind.

Is there a group or individuals spearheading a national campaign to abolish it?

NM Appleseed is a non-partisan nonprofit with a mission to create systemic change for the poor and underserved. The organization helped pass the bill in New Mexico and has since been in contact with 32 other states about passing legislation. On the federal level, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham is carrying a bill in the House and Senator Tom Udall is carrying a version in the Senate.

Besides legislation, what are some of the ways groups and individuals are helping to deal with childhood hunger and lunch shaming?

The Community Eligibility Program, set up by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] in 2010, has become a lifesaver. It gives free lunches to every student in a school where at least 40 percent of the families are extremely poor and automatically qualify for government aid. Another solution is the federal free meal program. But not every struggling family meets the income requirements, and those that do may have language barriers or fears over immigration status or fail to file the paperwork.

Rob Solomon, chief executive of GoFundMe, said it had about 30 active campaigns to raise money for meal debt. One man started Feed the Future Forward, which hosts crawfish boils and golf tournaments to raise money. It has wiped out more than $30,000 in food bills so far.

What’s the connection between your show and the cause?

The Meatball Chronicles is a love story centered around the power of food and family. When I heard about lunch shaming, I thought this is something I can actually speak about through my show, which is about our relationship with food. The piece is stand-alone, but I use the time before the audience to raise people’s awareness.

I believe food can heal not just our bodies but our souls. And what better way to bring all that together but through theater?


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Two Cousins and a Magical Ice Cream Truck Figure in Leon Martell’s New Play

Although not all of ICE‘s comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face.

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Deborah Klugman

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Tony Dúran in ICE. (Photo: Cooper Bates)

ICE, Leon Martell’s family friendly play, takes place in 1988 and follows the misadventures of two undocumented immigrants: Chepe (Jesús Castaños-Chima), an avid baseball fan who dreams of making a fortune selling gourmet tacos; and his cousin Nacho (Tony Dúran), whom the beleaguered Chepe summons from Mexico to assist him in setting up his business. Directed by Debbie Devine at 24th Street Theatre, the show displays plenty of heart, not all of it realized in this premiere production. Despite this, there’s enough political relevancy, moral truth and human comedy packed into the show’s 65-minute time frame to overlook its shortcomings.

The core of the humor is the difference in personality between the two cousins. The ambitious Chepe is bitter and frustrated about his experience in America, where he’s been cheated and lied to by bosses who exploit his labor and pay him next to nothing. Yet he’s bought into the American Dream of money and fame, and to achieve that he’s purchased a dilapidated old ice cream van to convert into a taco truck. It doesn’t run, though, and the secret family salsa recipe is with his kin in Mexico. So, he phones home and implores his mechanic cousin to head north, bringing the salsa recipe as well as his skills.

Jesús Castaños-Chima and Tony Dúran. (Photo: Cooper Bates)

Cousin Nacho, by contrast, is a sweet old-fashioned guy. He wants success too, but making money isn’t the only thing he thinks about. He juggles tomatoes to make kids laugh and indignantly admonishes Chepe for his desperate inclination to do what it takes (steal tomatoes, for example) to score success.

Into the mix Martell tosses a blind, disgruntled priest (Davitt Felder), who plays guitar and wants to launch English classes for children in his parish (the archdiocese turns him down). Then there’s Chepe’s truck, which has opinions of its own. It breaks out in jingles at random intervals; later, it communicates with Nacho via blinking red letters that eerily appear on the side of the vehicle, furnishing the two men with simple directives and essential advice. When ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) shows up, it alerts them to run.

Although not all of the comedy clicks, Martell’s story has both weight and charm. The production’s overriding plus is its successful rendering, fashioned with humor and craft, of the difficulties immigrants face. Its main weakness is Castaños-Chima’s technically skilled but somewhat chilly depiction of his character, which leaves us wishing for more warmth and complexity. Felder appears awkward in his role of the blind priest, but proves versatile on video as Chepe’s various nemeses. Dúran’s naïve Nacho is a lovable presence from first to last.

Displayed on a monitor, Matthew G. Hill’s video slides add historical and social perspective, and his backwall projections, in tandem with Dan Weingarten’s lighting and Chris Moscatiello’s sound, help conjure a magical aura to this parabolic piece.

24th Street Theatre, 1117 West 24th St., Los Angeles; Sat., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 10, (213) 745-6516 or 24thstreet.org.


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‘Ameryka’ a Biting Commentary on Our National Psyche

A new staging of Nancy Keystone’s award-winning political play comes to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

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Deborah Klugman

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Photo: Lawrence K. Ho

In 2009, Ameryka’s writer/director Nancy Keystone was perusing a catalogue, Western Amerykański: Polish Poster Art and the Western, when she spotted a 1989 poster that celebrated the first democratic elections in Poland since World War II. The central image was a black-and-white-photo of Gary Cooper in the 1952 film High Noon. Keystone’s curiosity was piqued over the odd connection between Polish elections and classic American cinema, and her subsequent research helped spark this sprawling political piece that spans two countries — the U.S. and Poland —and several historical time periods.

A collaborative effort of Keystone’s Critical Mass Performance Group, the play speaks to the struggle of ordinary citizens for a voice in their destiny and the tactics and hypocrisy of the powerful forces that would silence them. Originally staged in 2016 at the Shakespeare Center Los Angeles, here it’s played out on a large spare proscenium (set by Keystone) at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s “Block Party” project, which supports smaller LA. Companies. The patchwork narrative shifts back and forth among the American Revolutionary War period, the 1950s under McCarthyism, the 1980s, when a two-faced Reagan administration fired striking air traffic controllers while supporting the striking Polish Solidarity movement abroad, and the early years of this century when the CIA, obsessed with the war on terror, established a base in Poland, sweetening its presence with American dollars.

These scenarios are peopled with both fictional and historical personages, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Jeff Lorch), a Polish military officer and passionate democrat who fought with the colonists against the British, his friend Thomas Jefferson (Curt Bonnem), who spoke against slavery but kept his slaves, and Kosciuszko’s military aide during the Revolutionary War, Agrippa Hull (Lorne Green), a free black man and soldier whose accomplishments inspired Kosciuszko to champion abolitionism, in contrast to Jefferson (who was charged by Kosciuszko to use his estate after he died to help free slaves, and promised to do so but never did). A scene where Kosciuszko and Jefferson dine at Monticello and discuss the evils of slavery, while being catered to by Jefferson’s slave (Ray Ford), is only one of the pungently ironical moments the play serves up.

Twentieth century personages include a pious William Casey (Russell Edge), who leads a prayer vigil with his underlings before plotting to implement a national directive challenging the Soviets through Poland (“Fuck Yalta”), Anna Walentynowicz (Valerie Spencer), a colleague of Lech Walesa, and Father Jerzy Popieluszko (Lorch), the pro-Solidarity priest assassinated in 1984.

After opening with the rough-handed arrest of Walentynowicz by Polish security agents, the play harks back to 1959. (Fictional) jazz musician Gene Jefferson (Ford) visits Poland, where he discovers that Poles love jazz and other things American, including Westerns and Gary Cooper. An African-American who steels himself daily against condescending racism (illustrated by his prior interview with a State Department official) he’s taken aback at their rah-rah America enthusiasm. That same cultural disconnect manifests in a scene from the ’80s; a gay American man named Ray (Ford) recounts meeting this terrific Polish guy in a bar, only to be put off when the Pole sings Reagan’s praises for supporting Solidarity. To Ray, Reagan’s legacy are the thousands of AIDS victims.

A complex entangled piece, Ameryka packed a punch when it was staged at the Shakespeare Center nearly 18 months ago (winning the Stage Raw award for Production of the Year) but loses some of its edge in the larger space at the Kirk Douglas. Less than optimal acoustics seem to be part of the problem. Many of the original ensemble members are reprising their roles; one exception is Lorch, recently brought in to replace the original actor. His work is fine, as is everyone’s, but I did wish for more distinctive and distinguished ardor from this character in particular.

Still, Ameryka remains a substantive, historically informative work, a biting commentary on the contradictions and illusions that bedevil not only our own national psyche but others. It’s the sort of drama we need more of.

Critical Mass Performance Group, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m;, Sun., 1p.m.; through April 29.


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A Woman’s Art Is Never Done: The Feminae Exhibition

A striking juxtaposition between the past and present courses throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March, which occurred 37 years after the print’s first appearance.

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Among the 50-plus works in the Feminae: Typographic Voices of Women By Women exhibit is Yolanda Lopez’s “Women’s Work is Never Done.” Lopez’s title is particularly ironic, given the exhibit’s gender-based subject matter. The show spans work from the past 50 years, making it easy to understand how much society is still grappling with its themes of gender inequality. Culled from the archives of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, the graphic images of protest, persuasion and empowerment are truly works of art in their own right.

However, political posters aren’t made to merely spruce up walls, but to help figuratively bring barriers down as well.

Two silkscreens from the 1970s, Liliana Porter and John Schneider’s “This Woman is Vietnamese” and See Red Woman’s Workshop’s “So Long As Women Are Not Free People Are Not Free,” are particularly powerful, underscoring, as they do, the fact that the subjugation and persecution of women crosses borders and cultures as an unfortunate shared global experience. These two pieces’ stark simplicity exemplifies most of the work in the exhibit. In the former, a New York Times photo of a distraught Vietnamese woman with a gun held to her head is centered above these basic words typed out in a typewriter font:  

This woman is
northvietnamese
southafrican
puertorrican,
colombian,
black,
argentinian,
my mother,
my sister,
you, I.

By juxtaposing the photo with these words, the creators take the plight of this woman and immediately globalize her pain. In the latter, three female demonstrators are silkscreened in red onto a yellow background. They are marginalized by being stuck in the lower left third of the poster, but two of them are raising their fists skyward and their mouths are open, screaming in defiance. Its non-serif, eponymous type reads:

SO LONG AS WOMEN
ARE NOT FREE THE
PEOPLE ARE
NOT FREE

This piece’s message takes the global message even farther, making the plight of women a human one — a common theme in the exhibition.

There is also a striking juxtaposition between the past and present that seethes throughout the small gallery. Celia Blomberg’s “International Women’s Day March 8” can’t help but make one think of 2017’s Women’s March that would take place 37 years later. See Red Woman’s Workshop’s 1977 “Black Women Will Not Be Intimidated” could easily be repurposed to address the recent spate of blue-on-black brutality. Notable works by Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent and the Guerrilla Girls are also included.

Ironically , while it can be surmised that most of these works were made as populist posters to be distributed at the time as banners of protest, their beautiful simplicity and nostalgic elegance probably have resulted in the originals (mostly now found in art museums) sporting hefty vintage-resale prices.

But it is not just the art that has stood the test of time. The fact that the issues addressed in the show — feminism, choice, gender equality, war, immigration, police brutality or violence against women — are all issues at the forefront of debate in 2018 ultimately engenders conflicting feelings.

Photo: Clifford Pun/HMCT

On one the hand, it is inspiring to see a vibrant exhibit that showcases such diversity in artistic styles, no doubt spawned by the diversity of the artists’ own backgrounds. On the other hand, there is a realization that while there has been some progress over the past half century, there is so much work to be done.

Art Center’s Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, 950 South Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through May 15.


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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”

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LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.

“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”

Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.

Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.

Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”

“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”

From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.

In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.

“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”

Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.

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Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten

Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.

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Deborah Klugman

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Ann’Jewel Lee and Matthew Gallenstein. (All photos by Darrett Sanders)

Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.

The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.

That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.

Tim Wright, Alison Martin and Alana Dietze.

The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.

When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.

Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?

The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.

These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.

Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.

Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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