Robert Saoud, Geoffrey P. Burns, and Christopher Chewin It’s All True(Photo: Sheila Ferrini)
Robert Saoud, Geoffrey P. Burns, and Christopher Chew
in It’s All True
(Photo: Sheila Ferrini)
It's All True is a riveting play based on the true story of theater legend Orson Welles's attempt to get a controversial, pro-union play in front of an audience despite threats from the Works Progress Administration. It's 1937 and, with many Americans unemployed and steel workers dying in violent protests, sentiment both for and against the labor movement is running high. Under pressure from conservative politicians, the WPA padlocks the theater that Welles (Geoffrey P. Burns) has been using for his productions. His team, including producer John Houseman (Robert Saoud), author-composer Marc Blitzstein (Christopher Chew), and actor Howard Da Silva (Neil A. Casey), is already riven by artistic and political differences. Can they find enough common ground to persevere?

Jason Sherman's play, directed by Spiro Veloudos at Boston's Lyric Stage, concerns the first production of Blitzstein's opera-like manifesto The Cradle Will Rock. (You may remember the 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins's more elaborate -- and probably more embellished -- take on this story.) Opening with news of the WPA closing the theater, It's All True flips back and forth in time. We see Blitzstein dazzled by Welles's enthusiasm for Cradle and eager to work with the famed director. We are introduced to Eva (Julie Jirousek), Blitzstein's best friend and inspiration, who continues to haunt him after her early death. (Jirousek also plays Welles's lover -- a waitress -- and the actress Olive). We learn how producer Houseman, a Hungarian immigrant, lost a fortune in wheat futures in 1929 but felt liberated to tackle the creative life. We hear Da Silva denounce playwright Clifford Odets, who made him a star in Waiting for Lefty, saying that Odets "sold out" by going to Hollywood.

But Welles's wife, Virginia (Jennifer Valentine, who also plays the long-suffering stage manager Jean Rosenthal), may hold the key to It's All True and to the calculated irony of the play's title. The wealthy, neglected, hard-drinking Virginia is the one most capable of understanding the treacherous magic of her genius husband; as she tells Blitzstein, Welles could persuade anyone of anything. He could hold his hands to your throat and squeeze with all his might, but if he were saying "I love you" at the same time, you would believe him.

Thus, at the end of It's All True -- when Welles almost convinces Virginia not to leave him but she sees through him -- we are prepped for what is to follow. The embattled director makes a final, passionate speech urging his colleagues to stand firm even though the WPA could stop their meager incomes. He speaks movingly of the value of art and social protest, tapping into whatever motivates each person most. His performance is so inspiring that the group goes on to create theater magic. But whether Welles himself is motivated by art, protest, or merely self-aggrandizement before the curious crowds that have heard about the WPA censorship remains a mystery, perhaps even to the master magician himself.

The strength of Sherman's dialogue lies in its momentum, its naturalness, and its use of 1930s slang. There are fun one-liners, too, as when Welles pooh-poohs Houseman's susceptibility to early rumors of the WPA's opposition: "You Hungarians -- when you lose an empire, you assume someone is always around the corner."

The direction and acting are uniformly excellent, although the rapid-fire argument that opens the show needs tighter coordination so that the speakers don't stop mid-sentence, expecting to be interrupted. Because the brevity of some of the scenes involving the women prevents costume changes, confused audience members at the performance I attended initially thought that Welles was quarreling with his stage manager instead of his wife, or having an affair with a Cradle actress instead of with a waitress.

Russ Swift's inventive lighting indicates the scene changes and works beautifully with Brynna Bloomfield's abstract set to evoke '30s theater. Sound design is by Marc Plevinsky, costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley, and original music by Don Horsburgh.