Chicago Theater Review: AMERICAN MYTH (American Blues Theater at Greenhouse Theater Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 15, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

LIES ARE HARD TO LIMIT

Are some lies lighter than others and thus lesser? Charles Van Doren will always be tainted for knowing the answers in advance in the 1959 Geritol quiz show scandal. Serial liar Stephen Glass manufactured article after article from whole cloth in the National Review. Whatever truth he might have told, a now-canceled professor of logic at Northwestern University was recently contaminated for ignoring a rape accusation that the university refused to take seriously.

A similar ethical challenge haunts American Myth, American Blues Theater’s fascinating, if frustratingly unresolved, world premiere at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Steve Scott’s surefire staging manages to make Christina Gorman’s action-oriented moral dilemma snap, crackle, and pop.

Cheryl Graeff, Mick Weber and Terry Hamilton in American Blues Theater's production of AMERICAN MYTH.

It’s September 2000 at a small college town north of Boston, where for a quarter century American history professor Douglas Graham (Mick Weber, busily charming and harming) has engaged students with his lively depiction of John Adams and other founding fathers from 1776 to 1826 (when Adams and Jefferson both died on the Fourth of July, as Dr. Graham vigorously describes). Douglas is happy to be cock of this tiny walk, admired by generations of students and adored by his younger wife Lanie (Cheryl Graeff), director of admissions.

More informally, Douglas also teaches a course on the Vietnam War which he says he fought in, then protested against, conflating his private history with an equally troubled part of the American past. Now the renowned Dr. Graham is about to receive the prestigious Roosevelt Award, with a prize of $100,000 for his scholarly output.

Cheryl Graeff and Jordan Brodess in American Blues Theater's production of AMERICAN MYTH.

Egged on by his circulation-conscious editor (hard-boiled Steve Key), young reporter Peter Finnerty (supple Jordan Brodess), former student and acolyte, does a puff piece on Graham in a Sunday supplement. After it appears, however, Peter slowly discovers that what he put in print may not be so: This mentor’s claims to warrior and protestor status in 1971 have been, well, misstated, possibly also Graham’s Eagle Scout merit badges and track records in college.

As Jefferson labeled the Declaration of Independence, Graham’s life may be a “mutilated draft,” though his sins are not as drastic as resumé-padding or outright fraud—more like embellishing to the point of invention a life that he deemed insufficiently noteworthy. Very realistically reacting to the mounting scandal, Graham’s colleague (Terry Hamilton, richly modulating) moves from championing to questioning his cruelly-libeled fellow academic.

Mick Weber and Jordan Brodess in American Blues Theater's production of AMERICAN MYTH.

What follows is an escalating battle for the truth about Douglas Graham—and Peter too. Is this disgruntled journalist–who wanted to become a historian and who all but lived at the Grahams’ home while an undergraduate–fueled by envy and bent on revenge? Do Graham’s biographical fabrications damage the fact-checked, impeccably accurate, and unplagiarized books that are his real claim to fame? Nothing is cut and dried in a play that rightly resists snap judgments and casual condemnation.

Alas, like Steppenwolf’s Russian Transport, the play, warmly ensconced in Grant Sabin’s Prairie-style set, refuses to follow its tabloid brouhaha to a bitter or better end. It’s enough, Gorman implies, to raise the question of the liability of lies, whether personal prevarication can infect an entire career and irreparably damage a reputation built on telling other people’s stories.

Mick Weber in American Blues Theater's production of AMERICAN MYTH.

What’s unequivocal is the sterling acting that Scott characteristically inspires from five shining thespians. Brodess’ disaffected disciple seethes with injured innocence and idealism–but is he also pursuing a dubious push for notoriety? Graeff delivers a wife caught and confused by her husband’s complexity. Likewise Hamilton’s anguished friend. Key’s sensation-seeking editor functions smoothly and sinisterly as Peter’s bad angel.

Finally, Mick Weber gives narrator and antihero Douglas Graham more than his due as he maintains, with a dignity that may well be undeserved, that he is an “honorable man.” What that means, of course, is the point of the play. Despite Gorman’s too-open ending, that mission is accomplished.

Steve Key and Jordan Brodess in American Blues Theater's production of AMERICAN MYTH.photos by Johnny Knight

American Myth
American Blues Theater
Greenhouse Theater Center
Downstage Studio Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Park
scheduled to end on April 6, 2014
for tickets, call 773.404.7336
or visit www.americanbluestheater.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater,
visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 2 comments }

April March 15, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Small point of correction: Doug’s wife name is Lanie. 🙂

Tony Frankel March 15, 2014 at 6:14 pm

Thanks, April – It has been corrected!

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