Red Pepper: New play recalls the campaign against FL Sen. Claude Pepper

Anti-Communist scare tactics and the power of big bucks.

It's easy enough to believe that Florida has no history. In cities like Boston, heritage is everywhere — from church graveyards to monuments to 18th-century townhouses. But look around in Tampa or St. Pete and you find bright modern buildings of steel and glass, houses that clearly were built within the last century, and, of course, the beaches that seem as if they've never aged. I'm not saying there aren't exceptions. But for the most part, one can spend a week or a year here without ever being reminded that this is an area with a past. Much of the Sunshine State seems to have arrived only yesterday.

That's why it's so encouraging to find a play like Suzanne Willett's Red Pepper, currently playing in a rather rudimentary production at the Venue Theatre in Pinellas Park. In spite of the starkness of the production, this is a tantalizing play about the Florida senatorial election of 1950, in which George Smathers defeated Claude Pepper by smearing the latter with the charge of pro-Communism. Standing behind Smathers was wealthy businessman Ed Ball, who didn't want Pepper opposing his control of several companies (including a railroad and a bank), and who was determined to bring the liberal senator down by any means. At a time when the Occupy Wall Street protesters are insisting that the very wealthy have taken too large a chunk of the national pie, Red Pepper is a needed reminder that Florida too has been a plutocracy, benefiting the few at the expense of the many. And it's a reminder, too, that in Florida politics as in the nation generally, nothing votes like a checkbook.

Two office areas, designed by Jared Porter and Katelynn McElrath, define the power struggle in Red Pepper: Claude Pepper's in one corner, and Ed Ball's in the other. (Smathers is never treated as important enough to have a space of his own.) When the play begins, it's 1944, and Smathers is Pepper's campaign manager. But in the scenes that follow, Ball becomes increasingly dissatisfied with Pepper's populism, and enlists Smathers, the son of a respected judge, to run against the leftist incumbent. On Ball's side are various flunkies and conspirators, while Pepper's camp is mostly represented by his resourceful wife Mildred. When President Truman himself encourages Smathers to run — he thinks Pepper is a liability to the Democrats — everything seems to be falling in Ed Ball's lap. Only years after the race ends does Pepper, now a congressman, have a chance to get even.

The problem with the play is mainly that we never get to understand Pepper or Smathers very deeply. Why did Pepper make himself available to opponents nationwide by traveling to the Soviet Union, and where exactly on the spectrum was his brand of leftism located? As for Smathers, aside from what looks like womanizing, what did he believe in, and how difficult was it for him to run against his old mentor? Author Willett asks us to accept that Pepper was innocent of all charges, but she doesn't show us, positively, what motivated him or why; and Smathers is presented as a pawn with no will of his own. How can we believe in these under-dramatized characters? Why is Ball so unequivocally bad, but Pepper only apparently good?

Michael McGreevy plays Ball, and it's a potent portrayal, though one without any complexity (the script's fault, not his). This is a man who knows his power, who knows how to intimidate and seduce — the sort of guy you don't want on the side you're going up against. Also excellent is Dana Kovar as Mildred Pepper, not an adoring political wife so much as a canny, compassionate partner who's often more alert than her husband. Midge Mamatas as secretary Evelyn is also fine, but none of the other seven actors turns in creditable work; for example, Jared O'Roark as Pepper is uncomfortably one-dimensional, and Tom Bronson as Smathers just seems pained and confused. The program lists no director, though the staging is generally fluid and efficient. Porter's costumes are appropriate for the weather in Florida and Washington.

And appropriate for our time is this tale of money and power. Our democracy has always been challenged by the big bucks, and it's refreshing to see a play that understands this and demonstrates its dangers. Red Pepper may be imperfect; but it's exceedingly relevant. It's good that it's out there, adding to our self-knowledge — and our partisanship.

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