A rare chance to see a great American play is being offered by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. The Front Page, written in 1928 by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, is running through Feb. 25 at Howard County Center for the Arts.
The Front Page takes us back to the 1920s, a time when a major city could support seven or eight newspapers.
Reporters were badly paid and had no regular hours. If they were married, they didn't get home much. They were hard and cynical, with no respect for authority figures such as politicians or police, and they were not overly scrupulous about facts.
This is the world Hecht and MacArthur celebrated, and lovingly exaggerated, in The Front Page.
The action takes place in the pressroom of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago (vividly staged by set designer Dan O'Brien). It is a bare, messy place, with battered tables and chairs, a battery of telephones (the old, upright style) and, usually, there's a poker game in progress.
Seven reporters are awaiting the hanging in the courtyard below of a drab little man called Earl Williams (movingly portrayed by Reece Thornbery). Williams has been convicted of killing a black policeman and -- even worse in 1920s Chicago -- is suspected of being a political radical.
Hildebrand (Hildy) Johnson comes into the pressroom to say goodbye to the boys. He has quit his job with the Herald and Examiner -- in fact he picks up a phone and says a few choice final words to his managing editor, Walter Burns.
Johnson is planning to take a train to New York that night with his girlfriend and her mother, get married and go into advertising. Unfortunately, Johnson cannot resist a breaking story, and when Williams escapes Hildy gets right on the job. He spends the rest of the play working with Burns to get the story and beat out the other reporters, all the while frantically trying to pacify the two women.
Burns, at the same time, is scheming to keep Johnson on the staff and knock all this nonsense about marriage and advertising out of his head.
Hildy is a high-energy role, and Charlie Mitchell gives it everything he's got. Steve Beall as Walter Burns is domineering, scheming, single-minded.
The reporters are Wilson of the American, played by Jose de la Mar; Endicott of the Post, played by Jacob Rothermel; Murphy of the Journal, played by B.J. Gailey; McCue of the City News Bureau, played by Patrick Kilpatrick; Schwartz of the Daily News, played by John Sadowsky; and Kruger of the Journal of Commerce, played by Dan O'Brien.
The playwrights have not given the reporters much individuality. The only one who stands out is Bensinger of the Tribune, a hypochondriac and hygiene fanatic portayed amusingly by Scott Alan Small.
The boastful, bumbling sheriff and the smooth, shifty mayor are beautifully played by Don Edward Black and Frank Mancino, respectively. Their scenes together are comic highlights.
Rebecca Ellis gives a strong portrait of Mollie Malloy, a prostitute who has befriended Williams. Jim Raistrick, as a German-born policeman the reporters call Woodenshoes, perfectly conveys the earnest innocence the script demands.
Heather Whitpan gives some interest to the role of Hildy's girlfriend, Peggy Grant. Carol Randolph has more to work with as Mrs. Grant, her confused but spunky mother. She plays the part to the hilt.
Wayne Willinger is effective as Diamond Louie, a small-time hood on Walter Burns' payroll. Mr. Pincus, a guileless bureaucrat who holds the key to the play's climax, is winningly played by Joel Ballard.
Stephanie Roswell gives a forceful portrayal of Mrs. Schlosser, the neglected wife of an absent reporter, and Lorraine Imwold makes some amusing appearances as Jennie, a cleaning woman.
Several factors have discouraged theaters from producing The Front Page -- coarse language, racial epithets, a mostly male cast. Perhaps most difficult are the racial attitudes of the 1920s, which Hecht and MacArthur depict frankly. Director Ian Gallanar leaves these in, but in softened form, to give an accurate picture of the period.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents "The Front Page," by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 25 at Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Reservations: 866-811-4111, or www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.