Food and politics go hand in hand in TimeLine Theatre’s online revival of To Master the Art, written by William Brown and Doug Frew, and directed by Brown. To Master the Art had its premiere at TimeLine in 2010 and was then remounted a few years later, in 2013, at the Broadway Playhouse. As we are all cocooned in our homes, now is the perfect time to get reacquainted with Brown and Frew’s entertaining work and with its subject, the indefatigable Julia Child. Video recording and editing for the online version is by Marty Higginbotham. The play is available for viewing through June 7.
When it came to cooking, Julia Child was a late bloomer. She was 40 before she even started to cook and 50 before her first cookbook was published. She made up for lost time though.
But before she became the famous cook that we all know, Child lived another equally fascinating life.
During World War II, Child (then Julia McWilliams and played by Karen Janes Woditsch), a graduate of Smith College, applied for the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Rejected because of her height (she was a statuesque 6 feet 2 inches tall), she found work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She met her future husband, fellow OSS staffer, Paul Child while assigned at a post in Ceylon, but their romance didn’t blossom until they both were stationed in China. Julia would downplay her OSS years, insisting she was merely a file clerk when in reality she held an important position organizing classified documents and reports. Some have even called her a spy although intelligence officer may be a more accurate description.
After their marriage, Paul, who was also a photographer, was sent to Paris as an Exhibits Officer for the United States Information Service (USIS). This is where To Master the Art begins along with, appropriately, the sound of romantic French music.
It’s a story about not only being in love but also falling in love with food, French food specifically. The opening scene takes place in a fine dining restaurant, where they savor oysters. Paul suggests they drink some wine even though it is still afternoon. At first, Julia is taken aback. “Wine? At lunch?” she asks. “The trick is moderation,” Paul replies. Julia reconsiders. “Moderation? That’s no fun.” For Julia, it is a revelatory experience.
The original production began with the aroma of shallots sautéed in butter. Alas, online viewers of course can only imagine, and envy, the olfactory pleasure of that original show. We soon learn that Julia didn’t even know what shallots were when she started to cook but she is a quick study, becoming not only determined to learn the French language but also to study and master the art of French cooking–at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school no less.
She enrolls in a one-year course at the school and, unlike her fun-loving GI classmates, takes learning how to cook seriously. (Under the terms of the GI Bill of Rights, veterans at the time could receive funds to attend schools.) Here a trio of rambunctious soldiers represents the high-spirited GIs. One of the vets is a soldier named Carolina (Sam Ashdown). Ashdown, with his southern charm and southern pride on full display, does his best to bring the ebullient Carolina to robust life.
The first lesson at the school seems simple enough: how to scramble eggs. Julia thinks that even she, a non-cook, can do this. After all, she reasons, how hard can it be? What ensues is an animated and clever segment on how not to scramble an egg. When after she is finished and quite pleased with herself, her instructor, chef Max Bugnard (played with great, but subtle, charm by Terry Hamilton) dismisses her efforts with a sigh. “So many wrong.”
The chef and the student eventually become friends and the lessons she receives, and internalizes, at the school are the beginning of what would turn out to be an illustrious career. She becomes determined to perfect her technique, whether cooking omelets or partridges, and share it with others. “Good food is meant to be shared,” she says.
She joins a women’s cooking club, Le Cercle des Gourmettes, and discovers that one of the women, Simone Beck (Jeannie Affelder), is writing a French cookbook for Americans with another Frenchwoman and are looking for an American who is crazy about French cooking to help them crack the American market. The image of two women––one American, one French––sitting at a kitchen table carefully going over recipes and at times passionately but respectfully disagreeing over technique and taste is a revealing depiction of how food can exacerbate and, ultimately, help overcome personality and cultural differences.
Although cooking is the main theme of the play, politics forms the subtext. When Julia composes letters to friends and colleagues, she includes recipes along with a discussion of the Red Scare paranoia tactics of the Wisconsin rabble-rouser, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
In 1955, Paul receives a telegram, requiring him to return to the US, not to be recognized for his work promoting American cultural interests abroad, as Julia surmises, but rather to appear before the USIS to answer a series of provocative questions. He is suspected of consorting with known communists (their American neighbor in Paris, Jane Foster Zlatovski, played by Heidi Kettenring) and is even accused of being gay (“Are you a homosexual? You’re an artist. You like wine.”)
Despite all the turmoil, Julia, along with her French collaborators, continues to work on the cookbook. The nadir of her life in Paris occurs when Houghton Mifflin rejects the manuscript with a cursory dismissal––“Americans don’t cook like this”––which prompts Julia to lament, “Ten years of my life wasted.”
But when an American friend Avis DeVoto (a fine Janet Ulrich Brooks) sends it to an editor she knows at Knopf, things begin looking up. Knopf makes an offer and eventually Julia submits a whopping 750-page manuscript. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and published in 1961, became a rousing success.
Fittingly, To Master the Art ends in the same restaurant where it began. But this time Julia not only orders the meal in fluent French, she is recognized as an expert in her field. It is a touching, satisfying, and well-earned moment.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Woditsch captures Julia’s curiosity and enthusiasm as well as her naiveté. Craig Spidle as Paul Child exudes a warm masculinity and Hamilton is excellent in the dual role of the stuffy chef (who later warms up to Child’s down-to-earth style) and her wealthy conservative father, “Big John” McWilliams.
The online revival of To Master the Art can be viewed until June 7. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tickets are $15-$25 or subscribers can use their Flex-Pass. TimeLine offers viewers many French dining options in the Chicago area that are providing delivery or curbside pick up services to complement the viewing of the play. See https://timelinetheatre.com/events/to-master-the-art-remote/