Hold the Line | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Hold the Line 

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Zebra Crossing Theatre

More than a century ago Henry Ward Beecher said "Nothing dies so hard, or rallies so often, as intolerance." In our lifetime this country's ugliest example of this was the red scare of the 50s, a paranoid frenzy that fed on self-fulfilling fears and spurious accusations, and destroyed countless careers on the basis of little more than guilt by association.

In Hold the Line, a new one-act being presented by Zebra Crossing Theatre, playwright Christine Sumption intends to re-create the look and feel of that witch hunt and to indict the "silent generation" for its collusive indifference. She also intends to undermine the squeaky-clean image that some people still connect with the Eisenhower era. In short, it wants to be a sort of "Dick and Jane Meet the Real World." Unfortunately, the simplistic, heavy-handed Hold the Line makes the mistake of fighting propaganda with propaganda.

Following a series of nostalgic slides displaying 50s consumer icons, the play opens with a wholesome 50s family--smiling mom, dorky dad, and two painfully average kids, all about to have a balanced meal. Into this cloying domesticity bursts a TV bulletin detailing the McCarthy hearings ("We are at war with an enemy within"). The kids are inspired to become little Commie hunters--and of course their first suspects are Mom and Dad.

The kids seek help from their Uncle Herb (based on Herbert Philbrick, the FBI counter-spy and author of I Led Three Lives). Eager to brainwash the children, Uncle Herb shows them how to tell good newspapers from rags that are really fronts for Moscow (we're supposed to believe a want-ad section is the Daily Worker). Herb teaches the tykes 'to recognize fellow travelers by their use of code words like "peace" and "freedom." ("A better tomorrow" is Commie talk for "a bad future," but when real Americans use the phrase it means what it says.) Finally, Herb helps them infiltrate such vicious cells of subversion as a concert by Pete Seeger and the Weavers.

The kiddie crusaders become increasingly less rabid as they meet--not the pinko pod people they feared--but flesh-and-blood lefties: Paul and Eslanda Robeson, both heartily unrepentant and buoyant with the hope of a fair America; Meridel Le Sueur (a midwestern feminist and short-story writer); actor Lionel Stander; and playwright Lillian Hellman (in reality not nearly as noble as this black-and-white play suggests).

After hearing their courageous testimony (Robeson counsels "Fear can be a crippling thing") and such stirring anthems of solidarity as "We Shall Not Be Moved" and "Quite Early One Morning," the kids are no longer certain that Mom and Dad really do take orders from Moscow; maybe the fact that one likes Pete Seeger's music doesn't automatically make one a Stalinist stooge. (This section ends very abruptly, as if Sumption just pulled out its plug.)

To ram things home, the tale jumps to a stereotypical 80s family--yuppie parents preoccupied with networking, nouvelle cuisine, and power lunches, an aerobicizing daughter, etc. But the updated 80s family does not parallel the 50s one. She pictures this later clan as liberals rightly suspicious of Ollie North's self-serving and lucrative patriotism. So it seems that everything the play depicted was really only yesterday's battle. The play's lessons have been learned--which of course calls into question Hold the Line's reason for being.

Equally questionable is its bland dialogue, its lack of wit or even irony, and its predictable, uncritical portrait of immaculate idealists persecuted by hypocritical rightist morons. The play particularly infuriates because it tries to serve a good cause with such clumsy and obvious tactics.

(The play also features a bit of private vengeance: one of the FBI agents is named after a well-known producer who forced the playwright and her husband to resign from his theater.)

The stylized staging by Marlene Zuccaro and the author is good-humored, fast paced--and necessarily as shallow as the script and as broad as the Mississippi; it's as if there was a closeout sale on 50s and 80s stereotypes and Zebra Crossing bought big. Which means that the play's martyrs of the red scare have to carry the play's entire moral weight. Though Doris Craig's Meridel Le Sueur and Steve Harris's Paul Robeson blaze with conviction, their separate speeches aren't integrated, emotionally or thematically, into the story; they stand out in the worst way, as do all the other blacklisted saints.

With a cute little-girl voice, Eileen Niccolai has some fun with the 50s daughter. As Commie-sniffing Herb, Cecilie Keenan leers, goosesteps, and all but slobbers on the stage, but still, Ernest Saves Christmas was funnier. Peter Gronwold plays Pete Seeger so stiffly you'd think he was an FBI plant.

Unintended lesson of a well-intended play: you don't fight intolerance with the stereotypes it thrives on.

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