Letters from the Big House

Please don't mention big-eared elephants: 'Trumbo' star Brian Dennehy
Courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust

This worthy experiment in democracy has endured a number of body blows over the years, notably during the post-WWII Red Scare, when congressional hearings were used as a cudgel to shatter lives and careers. One notable casualty was screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo, whose refusal to sing to the House Un-American Activities Committee got him fired by MGM Studios and imprisoned for a year in 1950. During that time, Trumbo fired off the letters that compose this show, which comes to Minneapolis after successful runs and critical approval in New York, Philadelphia, and Colorado.

Trumbo, writing in isolation and extremity, used his epistles to vent his considerable pith, albeit tempered with humor. A bevy of big-name actors have taken a shot at the role, including Paul Newman, Richard Dreyfuss, Tim Robbins, and even geriatric bomb-thrower Gore Vidal. The version appearing in the Twin Cities features theater, film, and TV vet Brian Dennehy in the title role.

"I saw the production starring Nathan Lane in New York, and liked it very much," says Dennehy from his Connecticut home. "I thought it hit all the bases, in terms of emotional demands, passion, politics, beautiful language, and Trumbo's experiences during the war. People really knew how to write in those days."

Dennehy grabbed two Tony awards in the last five years for starring roles in Broadway productions of Long Day's Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman. Given that the actors in Trumbo read their lines directly from letter-based scripts that they hold in their hands, one might think the task easier than the heavy lifting required by O'Neill and Miller. Dennehy brushes the suggestion aside, adding that he enjoys being part of a show that shines a spotlight on aspects of American history that have been forgotten by the general public.

"It's a real acting job," he said. "I don't think [Trumbo] has ever been sold properly. People think it's about an elephant at the circus. It's fascinating to me, too, how many young people aren't interested in having knowledge of America's radical past. There are these hugely important events that have been shoved into a corner."

During our talk, Dennehy is warm, engaged, and quick to laugh. The conversational waters deepen when it's suggested to him that parallels exist between the Cold War excesses that temporarily scuttled Trumbo and the current War on Terror.

"I don't think so," he says with a great deal of certainty. "In the '50s there was a homogeneity in our society--intellectually, politically, racially, academically--that just doesn't exist anymore. And now professors, the ACLU, the National Lawyer's Guild--they're all populated by young people who want to get a president impeached or an attorney general thrown out. Those events of the '40s and '50s are never going to happen again."

Returning to the play, the actor is similarly incisive. "It's got passion and humor," Dennehy concludes. "There's a letter from Trumbo to his son at Columbia about masturbation that's hilarious. It's not Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady. It's intellect and passion. Which is what theater should be about."

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