In the three and a half months since Douglas Post horrified attorney Jeanne Bishop with the news that he’d written a play inspired by the worst experience of her life, Post has overhauled the play and City Lit Theater has opened it. The changes failed to placate Bishop, who remains adamantly opposed to the production. Since I wrote about this story January 27 the play, Somebody Foreign, has gotten mixed reviews–and worse from the Sun-Times’s Hedy Weiss. And the entire City Lit board has resigned.
Bishop’s sister and brother-in-law were murdered in 1990 at their home in Winnetka. The FBI became fixated on the idea that the Irish Republican Army was behind the killings. The theory was that Bishop, who’d been affiliated with human rights groups in Northern Ireland, had some-how crossed the IRA, which was sending her a message and might even have killed the wrong sister by mistake.
Bishop refused to cooperate with the FBI in pursuing this crackpot idea, but the FBI shared it with the media, which played it for all it was worth and turned her life into a bigger hell than it already was. Eventually David Biro, a local teen with a history of delinquency, was arrested for the murders and convicted.
John Conroy described Bishop’s ordeal in a 1992 Reader article. The story of arrogance, intimidation, and delusion apparently inspired Post, and he set to work. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quite inspired enough: the draft he showed Bishop last November was at least his ninth, yet the story it told was still quite clearly hers, and Conroy’s prose littered his dialogue. “This scenario will obviously strike a familiar note with you,” Post wrote Bishop on November 7, when he finally let her in on his project, “but my play is a work of fiction and not a documentary.” Yet City Lit was already promoting Somebody Foreign as “based on a true story.” Bishop told him she felt violated.
Post wanted to do right by her. Artistic director Terry McCabe made it clear to him in a letter that withdrawing the play at this late date was out of the question: the results “would be fairly catastrophic. We would suffer irreparable harm.” Post set out to rewrite it. His protagonist, who’d been a lawyer, became a professor of Middle Eastern studies. Her interest in Northern Ireland became an interest in the Gaza Strip. The IRA became Hamas. The changes made his play so much more timely one might wish they’d occurred to him years ago.
Bishop read the new draft in January and wasn’t satisfied. Opening night was fast approaching. Here my first column ended.
For the edification of critics who would soon be reviewing Somebody Foreign, McCabe issued a 15-page news release. A page-long statement titled “City Lit Theater and Playwright Douglas Post Were Unfairly Maligned” asserted that, contrary to what I’d written in Hot Type, Bishop had never asked City Lit to cancel Post’s play. In fact, I didn’t report that Bishop had, but McCabe believes the implication was there.
Accompanying the statement was an eight-page narrative, “Chicago Reader Article on City Lit’s Somebody Foreign Was Incomplete and Inaccurate,” that offered a blow-by-blow account of communications between McCabe, Bishop and her attorney, and Post and his attorney. “The complete facts will show that Post and McCabe have at every point acted honorably,” McCabe asserted, explaining that “Post had always told himself that in the event the play ever got picked up for production, he would seek out Jeanne Bishop.” Attached were copies of two letters from Bishop’s attorney, Todd Musburger.
The first had been written to McCabe in mid-December. Musburger was letting him know that Post’s attorney, David Cudnowski, had informed Bishop and himself that “Mr. Post has graciously volunteered to completely rewrite the play.” The second was written a month later to Cudnowski. It said that Bishop was “eager to bring this matter to a positive conclusion” and believed that if Post allowed her to read the new version of the play “this would be possible.”
Post did, Bishop did, and it wasn’t. Actually, says Bishop, she never believed a rewrite would satisfy her: “It took him 12 years and nine drafts to get to where he was, and he couldn’t possibly rewrite it in three months.” But McCabe offered these two letters as evidence that amity had, in fact, been established and that City Lit had acted in good faith throughout, even though “Hot Type portrayed Post and McCabe as men caught doing something reprehensible and trying to weasel their way out of it.” Hot Type might have told the story more accurately, McCabe noted, if he and Post could have returned my calls, but he said everyone had agreed not to talk.
I believe I portrayed Post as someone who did the right thing years after he should have, causing an unholy mess, and McCabe as someone Post had put between a rock and a hard place. Later McCabe and I did talk. He told me his news release had made his board furious: “They wanted to make sure that nothing was said or done to upset Todd Musburger. In fact, it did upset him very much.” But McCabe believes he did what he had to do. “I felt City Lit’s good name and my personal good name and Doug Post’s good name were sort of besmirched by the Hot Type piece.”
On February 11, with Somebody Foreign in previews, the board met at the theater, at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. By then McCabe was in big trouble, and not just for the news release.
For one thing, City Lit had heard from an unhappy funder. Chicago’s Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation had given City Lit $2,500 to help finance Somebody Foreign, and the theater was advertising the grant on its Web site. Bishop, looking for whatever leverage she could find, discovered that one of the foundation’s directors was attorney Howard McCue–he and Bishop had once worked at the same law firm, and when her sister and brother-in-law were murdered McCue had handled the estate work pro bono.
Bishop called McCue and explained the situation. He was sympathetic, as was the foundation’s administrative director, Elisabeth Geraghty. McCabe had written Post, “With all due respect to [Bishop’s] ordeal, it may be possible she overestimates the number of people who remember it.” Geraghty remembered it well–her daughter had sat behind David Biro in high school.
“We were surprised to learn that our funding was being used to support this story,” says McCue, “and even though we learned that the author had changed the story so it was not so immediately about Jeanne Bishop, we simply didn’t want to be identified with it. So we asked City Lit, to the extent they were able, to remove our name from the production.”
For another thing, City Lit’s board believed that Bishop and board president Gary Redeker had worked out a “positive conclusion”–until McCabe got in the way.
Bishop had asked that a disclaimer be inserted in the program saying that Somebody Foreign was inspired by real events and that the family involved in them had not consented to and would not profit from the play or the production. She’d also asked that the insert invite the audience to contribute to Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization she belongs to that opposes the death penalty. “I thought that was a really gracious, simple, inexpensive solution that would completely solve the problems between us,” she says.
The board thought this was a terrific idea. McCabe wasn’t so sure. He tells me Post’s lawyer warned it could be a trap–Bishop had no grounds for legal action so long as City Lit denied the rewritten script had any-thing to do with her, and this notice would admit that it did. “I forwarded this opinion to the board, which was inclined not to take it,” says McCabe, “though it opened up City Lit to potential liability that did not exist otherwise. So I had a huge argument with my board.”
At the February 11 meeting the argument came to a head. McCabe says, “They said I could resign by noon the next day, or I could assemble a new board, and they’d vote it in and then resign. I chose option two.”
McCabe says he left the meeting, went upstairs, got on the phone, and in 24 minutes rounded up three new board members, enough under City Lit’s bylaws for the theater to continue. One new member is his wife, Nancy Flowers, who works with the Evanston Commission on Aging. Another is Paula McGuire, a lecturer at Northwestern University. The new president is Michael Monar, a business consultant.
“The old board members are perfectly fine people and a good board,” says McCabe, “but they were afraid of Todd Musburger.”
Redeker told me, “I’m still mulling over what transpired and how we all collectively should have handled this. Somebody Foreign really hit on an issue that I don’t as I sit here have an answer [for] or even a perspective on. I cer-tainly respect Jeanne Bishop’s point of view, and I also respect Terry McCabe–and also Doug Post’s having the right to produce something like this. I wish we could all go back and start over.”
Back to November? I asked.
“Nine months or a year,” he said.
Monar wrote Bishop to say that on the advice of counsel the disclaimer idea was dead. Yet a lawsuit, the fear of which prompted this advice, is something Bishop says she’s never considered. So Bishop moved on. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights drafted a statement expressing “our moral condemnation” of Somebody Foreign’s “appalling insensitivity.” Cosigned by four other organizations, it was released on Monday.
Reviews of Post’s play dwelled on the backstory. The Tribune’s Chris Jones called the play an “involving, plot-driven thriller (for the first act at least), but demonstrably unsure about what to say about broader Middle East issues and how to say it. . . . All in all, this now feels like a work drafted and lawyered to death.” Hedy Weiss at the Sun-Times, who reviews certain plays in the spirit of “Never again–at least on my watch,” wrote that Somebody Foreign had bumbled its way into becoming something that would delight Hamas. “The group could not hope for a more fervent trumpeting of the Palestinian cause, the evils of the Israelis, the abusiveness of the FBI and the ignorance and paranoia of the average American. Of course, the irony of the whole story is that the real demon is sloppy police work by a small suburban force.”
The local police don’t come off well in Post’s play, and Bishop objects not just to Post’s appropriation of some facts but to the way he departed from others. The Winnetka police, after all, arrested the real killer. “The play portrays the police as ignoring the evidence and not doing their job–can you imagine how much that hurts?” she e-mailed me. “How could I sit silent and allow them to be unfairly maligned?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rick Gleeson.