Bay Street Theater’s 2018 Mainstage Season kicks off with the world premiere of Fellow Travelers, a new play written by Jack Canfora and directed by Michael Wilson, on Tuesday, May 29. The production runs through June 17 with evening performances Tuesday through Sunday and matinées on Sunday and Wednesday.
Fellow Travelers takes place during the notorious Hollywood Blacklist period of the 1940s and ’50s, when the United States government was targeting screenwriters, actors and directors suspected of having ties to the Communist Party USA and ordering them to rat out current and former party members. During this time, the term “fellow travelers” was used to insult left-wing Americans who were not Communists themselves, but sympathized with the party’s ideals. In the context of Canfora’s play, it also describes the journey that the three main characters take together.
Inspired by a documentary that focused on the relationship between revered playwright Arthur Miller and renowned director Elia Kazan, Canfora realized how well their story could translate to the stage. He included American icon Marilyn Monroe, Miller’s wife, in his theatrical adaption, because he believes that without her “at the heart of the relationship, the story would be incomplete and false.”
The men’s friendship was famously wounded as a result of Kazan’s coerced testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), ending the careers of several of his colleagues. The Communist witch hunt motivated Miller to write about the Salem Witch Trials in The Crucible. The play prompted the HUAC to subpoena him to appear before the committee. Monroe attended the hearing with him, despite the risk of being labeled a sympathizer and blacklisted herself. When Miller refused to name names he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, but the conviction was later overturned by a court of appeals.
Canfora researched the Hollywood Blacklist and the lives of these three artists, studying the records of what they said and how they said it to pen dialogue for their Fellow Travelers counterparts. Although most of the dialogue in the play is original, Canfora aimed to “tell their story as truthfully and honestly as I can,” with no forced lesson to be learned by the end of the play, adding, “I’m not into prescriptive art.” He put great effort into making the plot accessible to all viewers, but he says that, as with any work of historical fiction, “the more the audience knows about the history, the better.”
Fellow Travelers is Canfora’s fourth produced play, following Jericho, Poetic License and Place Setting. Jericho received a highly lauded Off-Broadway run and was a New York Times “Critics’ Pick,” described as “painfully significant“ and “a smart, hard-hitting drama filled with biting wit.” Poetic License was hailed as a “smart, unsettling drama” by the Times, and Place Setting was nominated for Best Play for 2007 by The Newark Star Ledger.
Director Michael Wilson returns to Bay Street Theater, where he directed the musical Grey Gardens in 2015. He has also directed numerous Broadway plays, including The Trip to Bountiful, The Best Man, Dividing the Estate and Enchanted April.
The Fellow Travelers cast includes Wayne Alan Wilcox as Arthur Miller, Vince Nappo as Elia Kazan and Rachel Spencer Hewitt as Marilyn Monroe. Wilcox may be best known for his role as Marty in the television show Gilmore Girls, but he’s no stranger to theater. He’s performed on Broadway in Coram Boy, The Normal Heart, Chaplin and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Nappo has starred in the national tour of Million Dollar Quartet, several off-Broadway productions and Shades of Blue with Water Mill’s Jennifer Lopez. Hewitt’s credits include Shakespeare’s King Charles III on Broadway and the film Return to the Hiding Place.
Fellow Travelers runs May 29-June 19 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, with a “pay what you can” performance on opening night. The theater also offers an LGBTQ social after the June 10 matinée and “Talkback Tuesdays” with members of the cast on Tuesdays, June 5 and June 12, after the performances. To purchase tickets, visit baystreet.org or call the box office at 631-725-9500.