Stratford Festival review: The Front Page
Though, technologically, the world of journalism has advanced far beyond candlestick telephones and typewriters, and reporters congregate around free WiFi instead of landlines, the rapidly increasing pace of events in director Graham Abbey’s Stratford adaptation of The Front Page feels very similar to the pace of a modern-day newsroom under an encroaching deadline.
Written by First World War-era Chicago journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page centres on a gaggle of competing journalists – all but one of them men and all but one of them white – as they settle in for a long night in the criminal court press gallery to await the hanging of a man, Earl Williams (Jonathan Sousa), who shot and killed a black police officer.
As the night goes on and details, both real and embellished, come in – a story of corrupt politicians seeking the southside Chicago black vote in an upcoming election; racist, brutal and incompetent law enforcement doing whatever is necessary to make that happen; and a possibly senile man who is to be hung for political reasons. Meanwhile, the reporters tasked with breaking that story lie, cheat and beat each other back as they scramble to be the first to expose the truth – or at least a version of the truth their readers will enjoy.
Caught up in the middle of all this is Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson), who has announced to his editor, Penelope “Cookie” Burns (Maev Beaty), and everyone else that he is leaving the journalism game to marry his fiancée, Peggy Grant (Amelia Sargisson), and work at her uncle’s advertising firm.
However, as Hildy gathers his things and prepares to leave the criminal court press room for the last time, shots ring out and Williams escapes the clutches of the woefully inept and wonderfully hilarious Sheriff Hartman (Mike Shara), a twist that draws the veteran reporter back into the game to break one last front-page story before he puts his notebook down for good.
For a play that focuses on an industry that has been dominated by men for most, if not all, of its history, the Stratford adaptation’s female characters come through as not only stronger, but more cunning than their male colleagues.
Though Cookie Burns doesn’t appear onstage until halfway through the play – when Hildy needs her help to hide the escaped Williams, both from law enforcement and the other reporters so the Chicago Examiner can be the first to break the real story – she comes roaring in like the majestic saviour she is, flanked by two of her less-than-reputable goons with a pack of semi-reliable pressmen at her beck and call.
Beaty portrays Cookie with the sarcastic wit and devastating cunning that a woman at that time and in her position would have developed to survive. Often using the male reporters’ egos against them, she quickly adapts to every setback placed in her path with the single-minded mission of portraying the Chicago Examiner as the hero in a story of corrupt officials trying to murder a man who had not intended to kill a police officer.
And then there’s Molly Malloy (Sarah Dodd) – possibly the play’s only true hero – who frantically does everything in her power, including jumping out of the press room window, to save Williams from the gallows, despite having only met him briefly, but having recognize the fact that he is mentally ill and does not deserve to be hung.
Among the reporters, Michelle Giroux’s McLaren and E.B. Smith’s Wilson were the standouts, as they artfully portrayed two people forced to work harder and uphold higher ethical standards than those of their white, male counterparts, simply because of their gender or race.
The Front Page’s entire cast moved seamlessly in and out of the chaotic press room, causing problems, finding solutions, and cracking joke after joke with impeccable timing. And while many of the jokes are old standards, especially to those of us in the journalism world, they wouldn’t have been nearly as funny without the backdrop of the beautifully designed criminal court press room criss-crossed with telephone cords and littered with scraps of paper and fast food containers.
The Front Page runs in repertory at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 25.