My husband Stewart, a lawyer, refuses to watch lawyer dramas on TV. He’s far too close to the source, and tends to pick apart the details while ignoring the big picture.
I felt a bit like that watching “Truckload of Ink” at UNO’s Robert E. Nims Theater last week. Jim Fitzmorris’s play follows a cast of broadly drawn characters in a traditional newsroom as they learn that their paper is being downsized to a four-day-a-week publication for a more robust digital presence.
As a 32-year veteran of The Times-Picayune, I have far too many former colleagues both working for Nola.com and jettisoned from same to watch with any kind of equanimity a play about the disintegrating world of legacy journalism. I am too close to the source, and tend to pick apart the details while ignoring the big picture.
And so, upon first entering the “Truckload’ world, I was sidelined by the details. I found the characters rooted in the too-far past, from the crusty old reporter reliving the good old days on the brink of retirement to the hard-drinking but disarmingly soft-hearted city editor. I viewed the newsroom set as too “Front Page,” its old-fashioned slat-backed rolling chairs and mid-century desks at odds with the occasional Mac laptop or iPhone. I clucked over shoulder-strap leather messenger bag as universal reporter accessory.
But play writing, like journalism, is largely about language. And the language of “Truckload” seeps into the proceedings like a gathering river: narrow and diminutive at its source, but building width and power as it rushes downstream. By its second act, “Truckload” runs merrily along under oratory steam, sweeping grand themes along with it: issues of public trust and big business, ambition and altruism, the colliding attractions of past and future.
It helps that a strong ensemble cast breathes authenticity into the words. Emotions run high in this newsroom, and the passion escalates convincingly as leads are followed, sources guarded, stories debated – all against a growing and horrifying awareness of the imminent demise of this particular institution. Local veteran Bob Edes Jr. dominates the first act as Irish rogue Fintan reliving the bad-boy days of journalism. Broadway transplant Leslie Castay plays the prim but never delusional society editor Beatrice Bell. Kristin Witterschein resonates as the shrill but determined reporter Gracie, and Tracey Collins scores in the thankless but pivotal role of corporate hatchet woman Aiden. David Hoover, as the hard-hitting but increasingly disillusioned city editor Abe, brings focus to the proceedings as the voice of a profession that is losing its way.
Occasionally, my attention drifted back to the details. Castay’s first entrance, with a short pause and slight tilt of the head, was spot-on reminiscent of Nell Nolan, upon whom the character certainly is based. And there was a certain justice in Martin Covert, a longtime colleague who was not retained when The Times-Picayune went mostly digital, recreating a kind of patriarchal editor of a bygone era.
Ultimately, “Truckload of Ink” paints a captivating big picture, illuminating a scene that is playing out not just in New Orleans, but across the country. I recognize these characters, with intimacy and familiarity, but so would any other journalist, in any other city. That makes it particularly thought-provoking drama. While Fitzmorris’s play may not settle the debate over new media versus old, it certainly provides insight into the human foibles fueling that conversation.