Newsman Jim Lehrer back to playwriting with ‘Bell,’ a one-man play at National Geographic

Correction: An earlier version of the article misspelled the last name of Gregory McGruder, vice president for public programs at National Geographic.

September 17, 2013

Gregory McGruder, vice president for public programs at National Geographic, asked Jim Lehrer, former “PBS NewsHour” anchor turned novelist and playwright, if he’d be interested in writing a play about Alexander Graham Bell. It was a great idea, except for one tiny detail, Lehrer said: “Well, I don’t know anything about him except that I think he invented the telephone.”

So he started digging, a journalistic endeavor with which he was familiar. “I discovered, oh my goodness, this man was so much more than the telephone man!”

For starters, “He was an obsessive inventor. An obsessive thinker about: What else can we do? What else should we do? What is needed to be done? What more was needed to help us all live better, different lives?”

Bell’s two brothers and infant son died of respiratory ailments; Bell invented the vacuum jacket that, “long after he was gone, became the iron lung,” Lehrer said. He became interested in metal detection because “of his desire to find the bullet that was lodged in then-President James Garfield.” Bell wanted to make an a flying machine. “He was right there with the Wright brothers. They were competitors in fact, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.” He came to invent the telephone because “sounds had been his obsession since he was a little boy. . . . His mother was partially deaf, and he, Bell, became a teacher of the deaf, helping deaf people learn to communicate.”

“I don’t know if he was a genius or not,” Lehrer said. “But what I do know is his mind worked all the time. ”

Lehrer was given constraints by National Geographic: “Bell” was to be a 90-minute, one-man play performed by Rick Foucheux, whose interest in Bell is what sparked this idea in the first place. “Of course, that’s a challenge, a one-person play. I knew it was going to be difficult, but it was something I’d never done before. So I thought, why not give it a whirl?” Lehrer said.

Although Lehrer is best known as a man of fact — he’s moderated a dozen presidential debates — “I wanted to write fiction when I was 15 years old, and that’s what led me into journalism, frankly. I was of the Hemingway generation, and he said: If you want to write fiction, get a job at a newspaper. . . . So it was all part of that decision that I made when I was a kid in Texas, to be a writer.”

Lehrer didn’t return to fiction writing until he was recovering from a heart attack in the early 1980s. “I was recovering, [and] I was trying to sort through my priorities of life.” His finished his first play, “Chili Queen,” in 1986, but Lehrer wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result.

“The plays that I wrote, they should have been better, and could have been better, if I’d been able to devote more time to it,” he said. “That’s my excuse, at least.”

With “Bell,” “for the first time, I really had the time to spend. I went to about every rehearsal . . . and it was a great learning experience.”

Asked if he misses his old reporting gig, Lehrer is quick to say: “No! No, no, no, no, no, no. Remember, I had plenty of time to transition out of it, and the decision to leave was mine, when and how I left was mine. So it’s working out just as I wanted it to.”

Through Saturday at National Geographic Society’s Grosvenor Auditorium, 1600 M St. NW, 202-857-7700, nglive.org/bell.

A retro ‘Goodnight Moon’

If you closed your eyes right now, you could probably picture the illustrations from “Goodnight Moon.” Striped curtains. Red balloon. Flat, eerie, bright.

Deborah Wheatley, set designer for Adventure Theatre MTC’s production of “Goodnight Moon,” has no interest in re-creating the book onstage. She’s not a big fan of Clement Hurd’s illustrations. She thinks they’re “very dated.”

Wheatley decided “to really step away from the illustrations and create a realistic world. . . . I took the illustrations, and I sort of looked at it as if it were a child’s drawing, and that child only had a set number of crayons to color with. What would that child have been looking at in order to draw that picture? And that’s the direction we took.”

The result is a “vintage-y” grandma’s house, one that lacks contemporary objects (from 1930s toys up to early 1980s linens, and no more modern than that) and uses texture and color variations to make “a tangible, livable space.”

“Nothing is of the technical age,” Wheatley said. “Everything requires imagination to work.”

In her early discussions with Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt and “Goodnight Moon” director Roberta Gasbarre, “I had to really come up with images and reasons to explain and justify” those choices, Wheatley said. “Because there’s that need for connection. Will the children recognize it? And I really think they will. There’s still a red bed. There’s still striped curtains. We’re just asking the kids to push their imagination just a little bit.”

Keeping the design grounded in reality, said Wheatley, makes the magic feel more magical. “It makes the parts where things come alive so much more exciting, because you expect it less. Because there’s not that sort of juvenile quality to the objects.”

“Everything about the room sort of comes alive,” Wheatley said. “When he talks to the telephone, it has its own way of talking back. The same with the balloon and the lamp and the bears in chairs, they actually come out and they have their own dance number and the show. There’s a lot more play. They all have their own way of saying goodnight back, which makes it an actual relationship.”

“I love the magic in the play,” Gasbarre said. “I’m always drawn to the notion that magic exists as a reality for a young child . . . and when a play can bring us back there and engage us, it creates a feeling like none other.”

Friday to Oct. 27, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, 301-634-2270, www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org.

A previous version of this article misspelled Gregory McGruder’s last name. It is McGruder, not McGurder.

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