Diminished Fifth presents a series of fictionalized conversations focused on five women who were deeply impacted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. An important point for the playwright, Julie Halpern, is that while nearly a third of those writers affected were women, theirs are not the stories that have received much attention. Given the circumstances of the time, its pervasive and candid misogyny, it is by no means surprising that there are important and interesting stories which have not been heard. If in seeking to rectify that, Halpern does let her passion for the subject overwhelm the dramatic tension, this production is largely well served by its cast and the compelling characterizations help drive the play past its foibles.
The five woman invoked within this piece are Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Jean Muir, Essie Robeson, and Margaret Webster. Respectively they are a playwright, a screenwriter/wit, an actor, an activist, and a director. During the course of the play they drink a fair amount of scotch, smoke, and generally mix in their conversations political beliefs and experiences along with kvetching about various unsatisfactory relationships. This mix is actually one of the interesting elements that falls prey to the playwright’s generalizations. Two of their partners are outrageous cheaters, one is in jail for his refusal to testify, and another is busy jettisoning his blacklisted wife to further his career as a producer. While it is understandable that the playwright does not want the play to center on the men, the conversations these women have about their relationships is so limited to the facts and generally there is such a tone of agreement that the dramatic tension in the text is diminished. There are fascinating revelations between women that come from what they will put up with for themselves and what they judge in others that are largely lost as they endlessly forgive in each other. So that although the hounding of the committee, the strain over time, and the depth of conviction are clearly conveyed, some of these women’s humanity is lost in the unquestionable staunchness of their beliefs as presented here. Too frequently the writing falls prey to overly abundant exposition as well as this high level of agreement among the characters as to deplete the energy provided by conflict or tension.
Yet the play moves along for the most part briskly; the scenes are largely tight and concise. While I could have done with fewer scenes with the “evil brutes” of the committee, I must admit that they do provide some context for audience unfamiliar with the events and are blissfully brief. An extraordinary amount of information is presented and it is to the credit of this cast that is does not stagnate. Where able, Halpern has them move along quickly and they don’t dwell on the importance of the history to a degree that would make a person want it relegated firmly to the books. An engaging performance by Jacquelyn Poplar as Dorothy Parker deals specifically and differently with each of the women at any particular crisis. The contained but determinedly upbeat Lillian Hellman of Stacey Scotte is truly a portrait of grace under fire. Mary McGloin’s Jean Muir fully commits to the underlying despair of her alcoholism that prevents any potential loss of sympathy. The arresting Ronalda Ay Nicholas and Elaine LeGaro round out the cast. They do a fine job and serve this production well.
It was a terrible time to be a woman of intelligence operating outside the kitchen in America, and despite its occasionally dogmatic view Diminished Fifth does speak deeply to what was lost in the suppression of these women.