There is little doubt that playwright Jim Fitzmorris is at home in his milieu when he is writing about politics. In all of his best plays “From a Long Way Off,” “With Malice Towards All” and “The Visitation” there is an undercurrent of politics that runs beneath and connects the characters in different ways.
And why not? Jim hails from a good Irish political family. His famous uncle and namesake, Jimmy Fitzmorris, is a highly-regarded former City Councilman and Lt. Governor. Ever since he was a wee lad, Fitzmorris has been regaled with stories of political intrigue and shenanigans. Hand in hand with politics went the reporters, columnists, investigators and editors who documented the political and social scenes.
The world premiere of “A Truckload of Ink,” an ambitious project produced with The NOLA Project and the University of New Orleans Department of Film and Theatre, is an astounding success for the playwright. Once again he breathes life into a storyline literally ripped from the headlines of today that squarely hits home like a fist to the jaw with local audiences. "A Truckload of Ink," directed magnificently by Beau Bratcher, is presented on the UNO Nims Stage with 14 actors who play the employees of a fictional New Orleans newspaper about to cease daily publishing.
Again, this is based loosely on the story of what happened to The Times-Picayune, but it is not the Times-Picayune. In fact, the name of the paper is never uttered.
Fitzmorris takes hints of real writers and makes them conform to his storyline. First, we have retiring columnist Fintan Murphy, played by Bob Edes, Jr., social columnist Beatrice Bell played by Leslie Castay, food critic Eugene Kerrison, played by Matt Standley and hard hitting political columnist and heel Bevin Volpe, played by The NOLA Project's artistic director A. J. Allegra. Then, there’s metro editor Abe Gannon, played by UNO's film and theatre chair David Hoover and state capital reporter Gracie Heeler played by Kristin Witterschein. Others in the cast are Martin Covert as editor-in-chief Philip Mills; Keith Claverie as cub reporter Ike Mooney; James Yeargain as City Hall beat reporter Cole McClintock; Zeb Hollins, III as sports columnist Truck Chisulo; Michael Scott as school board reporter Brooks Younger; James Bartelle as former-staff-reporter-turned-TV-writer Neal Morgan and Natalie Boyd as a metro desk reporter and confidante of Volpe.
At first we see them all working and congratulating their colleague, Murphy, a two-fisted journalist from Ireland, with a brogue to match, who is retiring. We see the camaraderie and esprit de corps between staffers and get to learn about the ways they interact with each other. In some cases there are professional rivalries which crop up as stories being developed move from city hall to the state capital. Then, we learn via electronic posting on a rival newspaper's website that there is to be an unanticipated cost-cutting measure. The owners of the paper plan to shift from a traditional printed product and move to a more digital platform on the Internet. The look of shock on the players' faces and the realization of looming layoffs occurs just as the first act closes to a cacophony of cell phones all going off at once.
The heavy, if you will, is Tracey Collins, who plays efficiency expert Aiden Demptster. With a thick Southern drawl, she wields her heavy axe, looking to slash jobs at the paper. She and Gannon are at cross purposes. He is the leader in the newsroom, around whom his fellow reporters and columnists express admiration and friendship. Dempster is at the brunt of distrust and contempt from the band of reporters and writers at the paper in the first act. When she returns in the second act, the staff turns on her like the disingenuous cur she is. She tries to defend her actios and demands loyalty, claiming she is just doing her job. A newspaper is, after all, a business, she reminds them.
The question of how a newspaper survives in the digital age is at the heart of this play. "A Truckload of Ink" brings up several factors and trends about newspapers. These include how to keep readership up despite the numbers who have deserted traditional papers for the Internet and how to stem the loss of advertising revenue from classified ads that has moved to digital giants like Craig's List, Yahoo and Google.
The question is also put as to whether the contract the newspaper has established with the community has been abrogated when, in an effort to make the paper more interesting, it takes its focus off hard news and investigative stories and turns instead to running stories of gossip or rumor.
More technology means doing more with less resources. Reporters are forced to write blogs on the newspaper’s website in addition to writing conventional articles and conducting interviews. With less resources, investigative reporting is hamstrung and politicians, kept in check by the power of the press, are free to run roughshod on the city.
Fitzmorris wryly examines the power of a newspaper. There is a tale told of an impaired politician whose career is wrecked when he foolishly goes up against a reporter. He receives the admonition to never wage a war of words against a man who carries words by the truckload.
This is an important work and will only be seen two more nights before it closes on September 21. The performances are all stellar, especially that of Edes, whose exit near the end of act one merits an unusual ovation.
"A Truckload of Ink" continues tonight and tomorrow night at the NIMS Theatre at the University of New Orleans at 7:30 p.m. For tickets dial 504-282-SHOW.