Monday, October 6, 2008

'Our Times'

Highlight of the weekend, following Kaye and Val's departure, was our excursion yesterday afternoon to see my friend Denny Heck's play, "Our Times."

The play is a reflection on Washington state history from 1975 to 2005, a period that includes my years as a newspaper reporter covering state government and politics, so I was very interested from the get-go. One nice touch: Playing me onstage was Brad Pitt. (I guess Denzel was booked.)

OK, that last part isn't exactly true. In fact it's a one-man play, with Denny playing an older version of himself, 30 years in the future, and looking back on his time in Olympia. Although I don't make an appearance as a character in "Our Times," I felt like I could have been there. A lot of the people and big issues Denny recalled -- Linda Smith, Booth Gardner, the Initiative 601 budget restriction, the rise of women in state politics -- were also my reporting subjects. As personal work history alone, it was a fun trip down memory lane.

The pleasant surprise for me, though, was how well the show worked as a show. Denny's wife Paula, who is credited as producer and director, made a short speech before the play began thanking the audience and reminding us that Denny is neither a professional actor nor playwright. She needn't have apologized. The writing was tight and engaging; and Denny -- dressed, made-up and acting like an old guy -- made for a very effective storyteller and a totally believable version of himself.

"Our Times" uses a very simple set -- a couch where Denny does most of his reminiscing, and a screen for nicely coordinated yet unobtrusive slides -- and a simple, straightforward structure: The old Denny receives a letter from a college student doing research, and the memories start flowing. There's just enough humor and light moments to keep the material from sounding like a classroom lecture, yet none of it is tarted up or exaggerated to stroke egos (including Denny's) or to settle old political scores. It feels true.

I was struck again by how involved Denny has been in so much of the state's late-century story, by how many people he knows so well and, as Michelle pointed out afterward, by what a modern Renaissance man he is. Government, politics, public television, journalism, the tech boom, fiction writing and now play writing and acting; he's a guy with wide interests who seemingly just decides to do something and then goes out and does it. Very cool.

There were a couple of funny moments in the performance we saw in Tacoma, which is likely to be the show's last. One of the politicians singled out for special praise in "Our Times" is Norm Dicks, a longtime congressman and truly one of the state's political giants. Dicks is a big man -- famously a former Univeristy of Washington linebacker, which helped launch his political career -- so it was impossible not to notice him in the audience, a head taller than his neighbors, as Denny talked about him and his picture appeared on the big screen.

I'll bet he never misses a performance, I said to Michelle.

The other cool thing is that this play has been solely a benefit for various charitable causes, including a fund established by the Hecks to help Olympia school principals buy basic supplies for their students (I believe Paula is a middle-school principal there). So far the play has raised $26,000 for charity.

Yesterday's wrap-up performance was a benefit for the Obama presidential campaign. As working and semi-retired (but maybe not forever) journalists, Michelle and I didn't feel like making a political contribution, so we wrote our check instead to the Olympia school fund, and we were happy to do so. If either of us ever winds up covering the Oly school district we'll remember to declare our conflict of interest.

Thank you to Denny for a wonderful afternoon and for many years of rewarding friendship.

(Above photo from photographer Bill Cawley, via Denny's official "Our Times" site.)


freda said...

Great review, wish I could have gone with you.

kateco said...

Me too, freda.

How cool to be able to write/perform a really good one man show. The theater nerd in me is very impressed.

Nice post stylings.

-- k in yreka