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Monday, 20 February 2012 22:15

"Does Transcendentalism make your head swell?" or "Rush meets Ralph Waldo!"

Written by Steve Callahan
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"Does Transcendentalism make your head swell?" or "Rush meets Ralph Waldo!" / David Kilper

Soap opera?  Melodrama?  Well, Radio Free Emerson by Paul Grellong has a good deal of both.

The play begins at the funeral of long-time, popular talk-radio host, who also owned the station.  His son Al has returned from a kind of guilty exile in Maine.  The widow is eager to sell the station and is obviously having some kind of thing with Dr. Bentham, who does a medical radio show.

During a memorial program for his father young Al commandeers the microphone and begins to rant about Ralph Waldo Emerson.  It seems that his father used to read him Emerson instead of bed-time stories.  Al has embraced a very twisted version of the famous transcendentalist’s philosophy, and he is preaching it full bore.  His gospel is, “Do whatever you want to do—especially you have to cheat on your spouse!  It’s the only way you’ll ever reach personal fulfillment!”

Well, Al’s gospel reaches many welcoming ears, and he’s launched into a talk-show career that outshines his father’s and pumps the station’s ratings into the stratosphere.  Like Saul on the road to Damascus Al has had an apotheosis, and, like Saul, he changes his name:  he becomes “Ralph”.  He feels he is a guru—the sole source of personal enlightenment. 

Is this a parody of Rush Limbaugh?  In a way it might be.  (Did Rush’s father read him Hayek?)

Among those affected by this message is a very nice young couple—Henry, an earnest young home-builder, and Gina, a producer at the station.  Al, though purportedly Henry’s friend, is hotly on the make for Gina. 

Well, all of his malicious advice finally brings the radio super-star crashing to the ground, and in the end a small deus ex machina saves the nice young couple from emotional and financial disaster.

The student cast, oddly, includes nary a theatre major, but they do yeoman’s work.  Mitch Eagles is intense and wicked as Al, Sasha Diamond brings a lovely vulnerability to Gina, and I especially liked the easy honesty and decency of Malcolm Foley as Henry.  Jack Ritten was perfect in the small role of Freddie, the geeky techie. Randy Brachman and Joanna McNurlen are strong as the doctor and the widow.

But these actors are worthy of a much better script than this.  It’s filled with cliché and awkward, wooden exposition.  The playwright has been a writer for “Law & Order: SVU."  He’d be right at home on the soaps.  This plot, with its slight aroma of “As the World Turns,” is driven by a simply wicked villain, and we never get a hint of why he acts this way.

The set, by Robert Mark Morgan, makes the small black-box studio theatre very flexible indeed—with a glassed-in control booth at one end, a scenic turntable at the other, and simple and effective use of areas between.

Radio Free Emerson, directed by Panill Camp, continues at the Hotchner Studio Theatre at Wash U through February 26.

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