STRATFORD, ON—In the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, the tables are littered with cigarette butts, half-filled glasses of liquor, and empty Chinese takeout containers. Reporters smoke, play cards, and occasionally phone their editors, either to report a story or to make one up. By morning, Earl Williams (Johnathan Sousa) will be hanged for the murder of a Black police officer.
But the newsman Hildy Johnson (Ben Carlson) is getting out. He’s got himself a “girl” (Amelia Sargissor) and he’s ready to move to New York to become an ad man. He’s just stopped by to say so long to the guys (and, in this production, lady). The brief farewell, however, keeps getting extended: Hildy seems reluctant to leave, and when Earl Williams shoots his way out of the prison, Hildy’s back on the phone with his editor (Maev Beaty), the one he told moments earlier “to cram this lousy job into the Pope’s bungus.”
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page is sheer delight, a madcap comedy that has lost none of its charm in the ninety-odd years since its Broadway debut. It is also one of the highlights of this season at the Stratford Festival. The entire cast is superb, masterful at both the rat-a-tat dialogue and the physical comedy. Mike Shara, in particular, is hysterical; his Sheriff Hartman is funny precisely because he takes himself so seriously, swaggering with the unearned confidence of third-rate lawman. With a thick Chicago accent, he tries his best to placate the mayor (Juan Chioran) and contain the disaster so that he isn’t replaced by the dog-catcher in the next election.
Furthermore, in his adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur’s text, Michael Healey has teased out some of its latent ugliness. The comedy, after all, centers around the death of an unnamed Black man, whom Healey names Ephraim Till, perhaps as an echo of Emmett. He also adds a reporter, Wilson (E.B. Smith), for the African-American Defender. Wilson remains more or less silent when another reporter refers to “nigger votes” (usually changed to “Black votes” or “colored votes”), perhaps saving his emotional energy to challenge Hartman on the “heads you cracked in the race riots.” In any case, it’s a striking moment; the word interrupts the fun like a gunshot. By the time Hartman is passing out tickets to the hanging like it’s a traveling circus, we are well aware that our pleasure is coming from the pain of others.
Additional attempts at contemporary relevance are less successful—the references to “fake news” and Russian collusion are forced, almost obligatory. Still, these are quibbles; overall, director Graham Abbey has mounted a rousing and satiating revival of one of the great American stage comedies.