Gertrude Berg, the pioneering writer-director-producer-star of radio and television’s The Goldbergs, a domestic comedy of a Jewish family in the Bronx, is all but forgotten today. In part that is why area stage actress Elizabeth Dimon wanted to commission a play about Berg and her show’s untimely demise in the dark days of the anti-Communist blacklist.
In addition, the portly, earth-motherly performer recognized that the role of Berg would be ideal casting for herself. Brought into the project was playwright Joseph McDonough, whose Edgar and Emily was first seen at Palm Beach Dramaworks in early 2018. After two-and-a-half years of development, his Berg play, Ordinary Americans, will have its world premiere at PBD on Dec. 6.
Ordinary Americans began when the theater submitted Dimon’s name for a “mature artist grant” to Theatre Communications Group. In the application, she said the $25,000 would be used for a stage piece about Berg.
“She was huge on radio, next to ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ in popularity. Then she was even bigger on television,” says Dimon. “And now, she’s virtually forgotten. How does that happen? I think as an artist, that interests me. You think that what you do is so important, to know that one generation down they don’t even know who you are.
“The grant didn’t come through, but by then, Bill (Hayes, Dramaworks’ producing artistic director) fell in love with her and the subject. And then he made Joe (McDonough) fall in love with her.”
“I knew nothing about Gertrude Berg,” concedes McDonough. “So I did some research and I became fascinated with her. She was this media powerhouse before her time. She owned her own show. That was unheard of for a woman in those days. He produced her own show, wrote every episode. She wrote 12,000 episodes of that series for radio and television.”
Despite the show’s large following, CBS threatened to cancel it when actor Philip Loeb, who played Berg’s husband, Jake Goldberg, was accused of Communist sympathies in the early 1950s.
“There’s enough material here for 10 plays, but we had to focus on something and I thought her heroic efforts to save her show, to save her friend, to standing up to McCarthyism when nobody was standing up, that’s a powerful story that has been forgotten,” says McDonough. “People don’t know it and people should know it.”
David Kwiat, who plays Loeb, had no awareness of the real-life character’s plight until he got this script. “I had no understanding of it at all. We first got a TV in 1955. I still can’t get over the fact that a Jewish-themed show was national at that time. It just seems amazing.”
Research material about Berg and Loeb was difficult to come by. Berg wrote an autobiography, but years before the blacklisting era. Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner make a first-rate movie on the subject called Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg a decade ago and McDonough dug up some internet articles about Berg. Then he had a breakthrough when he learned about the Philip Loeb collection at the New York Public Library.
“A lot of it was tax returns and stuff like that, not all that interesting to me,” says the playwright. “But I did find a few pages of his handwritten notes, notes to himself as he was preparing for his Senate testimony. I treated those words with reverence. I took some of the words and phrases that he was saying to himself that he wanted to say in his testimony and I made sure they got put in our play. I felt an obligation of fidelity to the man, to his memory, to let him speak on his own.”
Loeb was a staunch union activist and a founding member of Actors’ Equity. “He was responsible for rehearsal pay. There was none before him,” notes McDonough. “He was a member of a number of different committees for furthering black Americans. That’s how he was labeled a Communist.”
“With Philip Loeb, the thing that made him tick was the pursuit of justice,” says Kwiat. “There was so much injustice then, just as there is now. That’s why this play resonates so much.”
The similarities between those red scare days and today are striking to McDonough.
“I try not to be heavy-handed with it, because I feel like the parallels write themselves. There’s a lot of fear and paranoia in our society today, forces that are advocating hatred. Certainly there is political division, that’s obvious today. But I’ve tried not to force any parallels. I’ve tried to be faithful to the story we’re telling. It’s completely a cautionary tale.”
Ordinary Americans first went before an audience at Dramaworks’ new play festival in January. “The reaction was very positive,” recalls McDonough. “But I felt it was too long and overwritten in places, which is always the case with my early drafts. I needed to condense it, to keep it moving, keep it tight.
“We pared away a minor character and pared away a lot of overwritten repetition. With Phil, I didn’t feel I had played up nearly enough his heroism, his positivism, how much he was out for his fellow actors. He was unintentionally coming across too selfish. Too much of a victim. I knew where the tragedy was headed and I was playing that way too early.”
Asked what she remembers of that reading, Dimon mentions the play’s length. “I remember standing there for three hours,” she says. “It was long, way too long.”
“It’s now an intermissionless play,” reports McDonough with pride. “I’ve probably pared away over half an hour. There was so much fat that I cut out. It’s been streamlined in a much more compelling way. Sometimes when you take away the excess, what is left becomes more vibrant. I think that’s what we found here.”
Still, the play contains three scenes that recreate moments from The Goldbergs, whose scripts are now in public domain. “I’ve tried to keep some humor in the play, because you don’t want a humorless tragedy,” says McDonough. “I guess I’m curious but cautiously optimistic that the play is going to feel powerful to the audience.
“This was a commissioned work so I really wanted to give Bill and Beth the most compelling story that I could,” he adds. “I was being commissioned for a specific idea and I wanted to be faithful to that. I really wanted to make sure that I was giving them the story that they wanted, telling it the most powerful way.”
ORDINARY AMERICANS, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, Dec. 6 to Sunday, Jan. 5. $77. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.