FellowTravelers parkbench

Spotlight on Lake associate Jeffrey Leibham reviews “Fellow Travelers”

****HIGHLY RECOMMENDED**** Many people may not be familiar with Frank Kameny. A U.S. veteran who later worked for the U.S. Army’s Map Service in Washington, D.C., Kameny was fired from his job in 1957 for being a gay man. He later took legal action against the U.S. Civil Service Commission in a case which is widely believed to be the first known civil rights claim based on a person’s sexual orientation in an American court. Someone who may have done quite a bit of research on Kameny’s career is author Thomas Mallon, whose 2007 novel “Fellow Travelers” has been adapted into an opera and presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited series. 4 BIG SPOTLIGHTS
“Fellow Travelers” received its world premiere in 2016 at Cincinnati Opera and arrives in Chicago immediately following a brief New York run. Set in Washington D.C. between September 1953 and May 1957, the work is an often tender gay love story between State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) and a young journalist from The Star newspaper named Timothy Laughlin (Jonas Hacker). Upon meeting on a park bench in Dupont Circle in clearly coded conversation, the two embark on a highly dangerous romantic relationship. Hawkins soon recommends Timothy for a job as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter (Reginald Smith, Jr.), a position which Timothy easily acquires.
Soon he is being warned of the insider politics of Washington by Sen. Potter’s good friend Tommy McIntyre (Will Liverman) and comes in contact with the nosy, extremely up-tight secretary Miss Lightfoot (Vanessa Becerra) in Hawkins’ office. Timothy’s only close friend turns out to be Hawkins’ assistant, Mary Johnson (Devon Guthrie). This being the era of the “Lavender Scare” the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy (Marcus DeLoach) also makes an appearance. Thankfully, the self-loathing and hateful Roy Cohn, who was Sen. McCarthy’s chief counsel for the Army-McCarthy hearings, is only randomly referred to.
With their passionate interactions gaining the attention of many people around them, Hawkins’ name soon appears on a list of questionable “subversives and sexual perverts” and he is called into Interrogation Room M304 for a series of mundane (and often hilarious) questions to determine whether he is a homosexual. Seeking an escape from the impending doom, Timothy enlists in the U.S. Army and spends several years in France, away from toxic Washington and his one true love, Hawkins.
Lyric Unlimited is fortunate to have such a strong cast of singing actors for this production of “Fellow Travelers.” Two of them play multiple roles (Smith, Jr. and DeLoach) and three have been around since this show was being workshopped (Lattanza, Guthrie and DeLoach). All of them are wonderful.
Composer Gregory Spears, influenced by contemporary American minimalism, has delivered a score which is lushly romantic at times and fleetingly cheerful at others. Joseph Haydn (one of Spears’ idols) would be proud of the theoretically precise construction. New York-based playwright Greg Pierce has taken Mallon’s sprawling novel and distilled a very concise libretto that is both innuendo-filled and sounds natural when sung. In several instances he has chosen to make the singers repeat key words or phrases for added significance. Director Kevin Newbury has shaped this into a solid and emotionally resonating experience. His strongest moment comes very late in the evening in a scene that will break your heart. With no dialogue and only Spears’ propulsive score they create a devastating, shattering moment that strikes deep to one’s core.
Thomas C. Hase’s lighting design is most effective when he utilizes harsh footlights that project huge shadows on the three monolithic slate panels that act as a backdrop. Whether during the interrogation scenes or the finger-pointing moments of betrayal it is chilling. Paul Carey’s costumes are muted blue, grey and brown suits or uniforms for the males with a refreshing dash of color for the ladies’ dresses and high heels. Vita Tzykun’s set design brilliantly uses multiple filing cabinets that can be configured to resemble the Hotel Washington for a Christmas party or the rooftop of the local post office.
All of those filing cabinets were filled with countless dossiers on suspected Communist spies or homosexuals working for the U.S. government. It is estimated that more than 5,000 men and women lost their jobs due to their actual — or perceived — sexual orientation during the McCarthy era. Based on that fact, the final image of “Fellow Travelers” is a beautiful testament to those personal and professional lives ruined by ignorance.
“Fellow Travelers” ran for four performances at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. To learn more about Lyric’s current season, go to www.lyricopera.org.
Read Carol Moore’s reviews at www.spotlightonlake.com.