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Ellen Geer's Latest Play Explores the Pain of Her Actor Father's Blacklisting : Not Your Typical Family Affair

August 12, 1995|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sooner or later, most playwrights turn to their family backgrounds for inspiration. Few, though, have as provocative a personal history as Ellen Geer.

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The veteran actress-director-playwright, who is the daughter of the late actor Will Geer and actress Herta Ware, grew up watching her parents' left-wing activism. She was a young girl when her father was blacklisted as a result of investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which targeted Hollywood during its campaign to root out communists in the years following World War II.

Now Geer, 53, has turned her memories of the McCarthy Era into a play called ". . . and the Dark Cloud Came," which opens tonight at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, where she is artistic director. And the production, too, is a family affair.

Geer's half sister, Melora Marshall, plays their mutual mother, Ware. Marshall's father, David Marshall (played by Michael O'Neill), also plays a character in the play. Ware, in turn, plays her own grandmother, the 1930s union activist Ella Reeve Bloor. Ian Flanders, who is Geer's son, is in the cast. And there are even more family members in the company.

Further, in one of those pleasantly ironic comebacks of which theater is capable, actors John Randolph and Jeff Corey-- who were themselves targeted during the blacklisting--appear, via videotape, as HUAC committee members, as does Ed Asner.

The incestuous casting is, in part, due to the makeup of the Topanga troupe--a mid-sized, professional (read: union) company founded in 1973 by Will Geer and which Ellen Geer has been at the helm of since 1979, the year after his death.

Yet it also adds a layer of meaning to a project that has been personal from the start. Ellen Geer began writing the play six years ago, when she realized that she hadn't told her children much about her own girlhood, let alone that turbulent period in American history.

"We had an incredibly sound, warm, wonderful family when I was a kid, before this happened," she says, seated in the woodsy backstage area of the outdoor theater, as strains of recorded Renaissance music provide the accompaniment for a children's dance class onstage.

Although her parents were politically active, they didn't just pass on their beliefs through simple didacticism. "This was the odd thing about my family: I had to figure things out for myself," recalls Geer. "[My father] would say things like 'Go read Sir Thomas More's 'Utopia.' "

Yet she did indeed pick up her parents' values. "What I and the rest of the family got was a real care about the United States [and] working-class people," she says. "That came through osmosis, not politics."

When Will Geer became a victim of the blacklist, however, the family's life changed. "This was a period of time that was very isolating for my family," Ellen Geer says. "I realized it had informed many of the decisions in my own life and my parents' lives."

The story of the play, which is told from the perspective of the young Ellen Geer, is "how the whole family worked through it and became knit again." It's a tale that the time is ripe to tell, she says, citing current interest in the period as evidenced by recent stories about the Rosenberg case as well as playwright Mark Kemble's "Names," currently showing at the Matrix Theater.

The objective, says Geer, is to remember and learn, and yet move on. "A lot of people who were blacklisted got bitter and that colored their lives," says the soft-spoken playwright. "What Pop gave us is, he didn't get bitter."

Certainly the elder Geer--best known to this generation as Grandpa Walton but who had a substantial career as a classical and film actor prior to that--had plenty of cause for discontent. "You can only imagine what it would be like not being able to work, especially for an actor," says his daughter.

"It's their face, their persona, and that's all they have for acting. They couldn't go underground and continue, like a writer."

When the blacklisting started, Will Geer moved his family to the bucolic Topanga property that is now the Theatricum Botanicum. There, the family opened a theater for blacklisted actors and singers and raised vegetables, which they sold right along with tickets to workshop productions of Shakespeare.

Still, even that activity could not compensate for the damage done by HUAC. "I watched my father, who was a wonderful actor and also an extraordinarily optimistic man, collapse," says Geer. "It was quite a frightening thing to see--especially with somebody that colorful, with his zest for life."

"He regained his strength and didn't let [linger] the bitterness of what some of his friends had done--you know, ratted on him," she continues. "He only saw it as a time that was hysterical, a very dark period for America."

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And although she speaks with great pride of her family, Geer still has mixed emotions about the fate dealt them by this country. "I always felt my family was extremely American," she says. "I couldn't understand why suddenly we were treated very poorly."

Her response is to use the theater to teach, so that another HUAC won't happen. "I really want young people especially to understand what can happen when the country makes the wrong choice," she says. "And how important it is to be involved so the wrong choices aren't made."

* ". . . and the Dark Cloud Came," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Sept. 15, 8 p.m. $4-12.50. (310) 455-3723. Ends Sept. 17.

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