Bay Street Theater’s Mainstage Season opened with Fellow Travelers, its fifth world premiere to date, and this one is something special. In the play, Jack Canfora tells the story of the complicated relationship between Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Marilyn Monroe as they are forced to confront the warped American nationalism known as McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist that occurs as a result.
Director Michael Wilson and the show’s cast have done an incredible job of bringing the rich history to life. The drama opens with Miller (Wayne Alan Wilcox) and Kazan (Vince Nappo) seated on a train discussing the changes that Kazan had to make to adapt Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to film. When they arrive at Harry Cohn’s (Mark Blum) office to hear whether or not he’ll produce their latest collaboration, they receive some shocking news: an FBI representative (Jeffrey Bean) will need to review the finished work to determine if it’s all-American enough, aka overtly anti-Communist. When they argue with the suggested changes, their loyalties are called into question. They’re later subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with one naming the names of former Communist Party USA members to save his career, and the other risking prison to avoid putting any of his colleagues in jeopardy.
With very few set pieces, aside from sliding panels and illuminated lines on the floor designating room boundaries, the creative team provides just enough imagery for viewers’ minds to fill in the blanks. One of the most memorable moments is when the spotlights shine down on Kazan during his HUAC hearing and grayed-out American flags are projected behind him, creating an ominous sense of disillusionment. While the play has no physical antagonist, it illuminates the sinister side of American nationalism and the dangers of putting political idealism above free speech. Throughout the show, the date of the scene is projected onto the set, which creates a fairly easy-to-follow timeline, although it does get confusing in a few spots when there are multiple time jumps.
That detail is minor when compared to the impeccable acting displayed. Wilcox’s Arthur Miller is sincere in his convictions, standing firmly on his beliefs without coming across as self-righteous or preachy. Monroe, as portrayed by Rachel Spencer Hewitt, is a smart businesswoman, loyal friend and patient lover. While the relationship between Kazan and Miller is arguably the most interesting in the play, Monroe remains at the heart of the friendship and acts as the catalyst to repair it.
The biggest crowd-pleaser, earning more laughs than any other character, is the witty Kazan. Nappo delivers every quip flawlessly, and most are received with a raucous uproar. However, his character shifts in Act II after being shut out of the Oscars and deciding to name names to protect his own career, trading his friendly quips for self-righteous speeches and defensive rebuttals. Nappo handles this complex transition without missing a step and manages to keep the audience largely on his side.
In the final scene, the male leads appear to have buried the hatchet and are working on a new project after Miller and Monroe’s divorce, and her death two months later, but the two have so much anger and resentment built up after the events of the play that they explode minutes before the final curtain. It’s a painfully real moment that the actors of the stoic Miller and jovial Kazan, portray with power and emotional prowess.
Fellow Travelers is a phenomenal play and a must-see for anyone at all curious about this dark era in American history and its similarities to today’s political climate and new wave of radical nationalism. The actors bring these historical figures to life with great respect and honesty, and the writing and directing tell a compelling story that is sure to keep audience members talking about it for days after seeing it.
Fellow Travelers runs through June 19 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. For tickets and information, visit baystreet.org or call the box office at 631-725-9500.