It Can’t Happen Here

By Philip Pearce

WITH POLITICAL PROPHETS as seasoned as Madeleine Albright wondering if we’re headed for the age of U.S. Fascism, Western Stage’s It Can’t Happen Here earns top marks for relevance. It’s the stage adaptation of what till recently was a long forgotten novel by Sinclair Lewis. Its satiric account of how a populist demagogue rants and raves his way into the White House has rocketed the book back onto best seller lists more than 80 years after its original depression era publication date.  

The parallels with contemporary America are stunning. Lewis depicts a nation so socially confused and polarized that a blowhard senator named Buzz Windrip, whose big Fascist logo hits you head-on as you enter the Studio Theatre, manipulates a political base dominated by an under-employed proletariat resentful at having no voice in a Washington dominated by a spineless Congress and a coterie of Liberal pre-beltway eggheads.  

As with Trump, leaders of organized religion figure heavily in Windrip’s climb to power. Here it’s not so much troubled Protestant Evangelical support as the bizarre imprimatur Windrip gains from a sinister Catholic bishop named Prang (Fred Herro), modeled on Father Charles Coughlin, who used his popular weekly radio show to preach banking reform and racial hatred back in the 1930s.   

The adaptation, first commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, lays out the contemporary political parallels with a dark wit that effectively echoes Lewis’s ironic approach to the faults and flaws he saw in twentieth century America. \

I like the way adapters Tony Taccone and Bennett S Cohen succinctly summarize the character of the novel’s wise New England hero Doremus Jessup in terms of what he reads. Cast members, who narrate as well as enact events in the story, take up and name, volume by volume, the wildly varied reading matter Jessup has chosen to pile, helter-skelter, around his cluttered study.

There’s a nice comic strip approach to the succession of  political meetings, with cast members holding up signs that signal us audience members to join in “Applause,” “Cheers” or “Boos,” like fans at an explosive television talk show. Objective truth gives way to whatever the new idolized party leader says is the New Truth.

It’s an able and hard-working cast. Jeffrey T Heyer is an admirable Doremus, slyly funny, at first too amiably wedded to his work as a local newspaper columnist to succumb easily to pressures to pull him into more than readable editorial tirades against the new political upstart in Washington. Once committed to action, Heyer delivers a lot of pretty complicated rhetoric with impressive clarity. As his loving but conventional wife Emma, Katherine Adrian offers a rounded portrait of a nice woman caught up in events she’s too shallow to cope with. Jill Jackson is typically incisive and convincing as Lorinda Pike, a local widow who has the insight, intelligence and drive to become one of  Doremus’s few political soul mates. The other is the bright and appealing Hanne Tonder, who grows from a predictable teen-aged daughter to a formidable ally in the anti-Windrip campaign. 

The cast are called to play multiple roles and  to become voices in a chorus that guides us through the complicated turns of a politically loaded evening. David Norum’s performance as Windrip has such a casual foolishness that it’s hard to credit the enthusiasm he sparks in his supporters—but that may be just the point he and director Jeff McGrath want to make. Fred Herro does a series of snakes like Bishop Prang and Windrip’s nasty military hit-man Effingham Swan with a low-key restraint that keeps them interesting.  

By intermission time, the elements of Jessup’s challenges, personal and political, and Windrip’s ruthless rise to power have been painted in clear, broad brush strokes and with a zip and enthusiasm that link the spectator with the ins and outs of the plot. It’s in the headlong rush of an over-crowded second act that things fall apart. McGrath seems aware of the problem. He choreographs the hour-long closing action with a telling economy. And, by and large, the cast struggle to keep pace, but the text is against them and they seem tired.  

The trouble with this kind of literal stage adaptation of a full-length novel is there’s just too much material. The plot points set up in Act 1 and needing to be solved in Act 2 are not just individual, personal, domestic and local. They are national, even global. Doremus’ family is torn apart by the sweep of world events. Doremus himself becomes a key figure in the counter insurgency against an increasingly brutal militarist dictatorship. Newspaper headlines and pieces of new legislation explode every few minutes from different corners of David Parker’s flexible set. Opposition forces plan details of their complicated counter-measures. It’s too much. As an audience we are so busy processing information there’s no longer time to become emotionally engaged. The terrible revenge Doremus’ daughter Mary (touchingly performed by Sara Mardon) takes against the murder of her doctor husband ought to stir our terror and pity, but it just gets swept along in the rush of things happening.

Visit this Western Stage season opener and you will see a committed cast applying talent and teamwork to a story that would make an effective three-part mini-series but gets crammed uncomfortably into 150 minutes of overcrowded live theater playing time. 

It continues weekends through June 23rd.