With just five characters and 80 minutes, Artists Repertory Theatre (ART) has used its final production of the season to show how easy it is to lose the plot line of truth. While such a subject seems particularly relevant to now, in our post-truth information quagmire, Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis—who is ART’s Andrew W. Mellon playwright-in-residence—debuted the aptly-named True Story nearly a decade ago.
True Story is a richly characterized work that falls forward into a hard-boiled whirlwind around a seemingly innocuous writing assignment: the penning of a rich man’s memoir.
The hard-boiled part? Donnie (Setareki Wainiqolo), the wealthy client, may or may not have murdered his wife. His ghost writer Hal (Joshua J. Weinstein) carries a related baggage, along with a tape recorder and a not insignificant supply of cheap Scotch. Lewis furthermore filled the tightly-written script with sly mentions of Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, and OJ Simpson, among others—in keeping with the genre’s reference-heavy style.
Sent to Donnie’s mansion by his demanding editor Brett (Maria Porter), Hal moves in and starts to learn and inhabit the voice he is to create on Donnie’s behalf. He meets Donnie’s daughter Miriam (Sami Yacoub-Andrus) a young girl on the cusp of teenager, with all the bravado that entails, and a mysterious Detective Quinn (Claire Rigsby). Quinn failed to prove Donnie’s guilt in court—thereby insulating him from double jeopardy—but wants to take another swing at the case and at solving the murder.
Conflict ensues. Truth starts to disintegrate as several editions of it emerge.
In real life, we know better than to expect any recollection of events to move in a straight line, so it was a surprise—and a strength of this play—that the scraps of shared history arranged readily into a satisfying and coherent ending. Lewis’ well-conceived work lands sturdily, without threat of forced exposition.
True Story stands or falls on its ensemble of characters, and Lewis penned a fine bunch of believable, if unlovable, ones. Each wants the truth—of a sort. Donnie wants public exoneration. Detective Quinn wants to prove Donnie’s acquittal was not her fault. Miriam, who looks up adoringly at her dad, wants to know he is innocent. And Hal cynically claims that he writes only for money—with a ring of forced falsehood.
We expect fine presentation from ART—despite its pandemic-lengthened building-less state, and there’s some good news about that—and True Story maintains our expectations. The lighting is gorgeous. The staging is fast—no turns seemed forced or arbitrary. Despite the acoustically hard environment of the Ellyn Bye Studio, nearly every word was clear and easy to assimilate, though the theater was packed wall-to-wall.
True Story's subject matter isn’t Mary Poppins, but life isn’t, either. The end result, and Lewis' script, deserves praise.