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Palo Alto Review. Malcolm and Teresa

 Palo Alto Review

Palo Alto Daily News

“Malcolm” poses big questions

British reporter changed by work of Mother Teresa

By John Angell Grant / Theater Reviewer

How do you start your life as a Bolshevik and end up a Catholic? South Bay playwright Cathal Gallagher asks that question in “Malcolm and Teresa,” his absorbing new play having its world premiere at the Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose, presented by Quo Vadis Theatre Company.

The Irish-born Gallagher, now a South Bay resident, is the author of ten plays. Much of his work deals with questions of religion and spirituality.

“Malcolm and Teresa” tells the tale of an atheist on a spiritual quest. The play follows the life of leftist British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who came of age at Cambridge University in the 1920s when the college was an incubator of radical political thinking that spawned sympathizers to the idealistic values of the new Soviet political system.

In 1933, when the Manchester Guardian sent its reporter Muggeridge to the Soviet Union, he stumbled upon Josef Stalin’s intentional political strategy to starve to death several million Ukrainians and other Soviets.

That experience wrecked Muggeridge’s communist buzz. His stories about the famine ostracized him from such trendy Soviet sympathizers as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser.

Years later, as a host for BBC television, Muggeridge interviewed a then-unknown Calcutta activist named Mother Teresa, who worked with millions of famine victims. Her way of experiencing the tragedy of global famine became an influence on Muggeridge’s own spiritual journey.

“Malcolm and Teresa” is a play for thinking people. It deals with big themes. How, the atheists ask, can there be a God in a world in which millions of people starve to death?

On the other hand, is education alone enough to teach people right and wrong, without any guiding spiritual belief? What is the relationship between spirituality and social activism?

“Malcolm and Teresa” flashes back and forth in time between the BBC studios in the 1960s and Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge’s Manchester parlor room in the 1930s. There are also episodes in Moscow and Calcutta.

In some ways its simplistic structure, a mix of expositional and dramatic scenes, feels like the genre known as story theater.

Occasionally the play revisits issues without pushing them forward into new territory, such as in multiple accounts of the left’s reluctance to look at Stalin’s murder program.

But because its thematic issues are so big, in the end “Malcolm and Teresa” manages to be both charming and engrossing.
Gallagher is an old-school guy, and the scenes from Muggeridge’s Manchester household in the 1930s feel like scenes out of the British and Irish family living room dramas of the first half of the 20th century. This is a very interesting piece of 20th century British social history.

Quo Vadis’ world premiere is a grass-roots community production. In director Denis Marks staging, actor Kevin Kennedy successfully sells an empathetic Muggeridge. Diana Hoffman portrays his spiritual interlocutor Mother Teresa.
Other characters include outspoken wife Kitty Muggeridge (Mimi Ahern), who sees herself as “more red than Malcolm.” Patricia Cross is effective as Beatrice Webb, Kitty’s communist sympathizer aunt, who cuts off relations with Malcolm after his reports on the famine.

Muggeridge friend and spiritual catalyst Alec Vidler (Dan O’Connell) is the Anglican priest who describes his Christian socialism as a program in which he is “to preach the gospel and vote Labor.”

“Malcolm and Teresa” is the story of a spiritual quest. I’m giving this three and half stars out of four, because the big questions that the play asks overcome the staging limitations that often go along with community theater.
If you want an unusual evening that challenges you to think, check out “Malcolm and Teresa.”

Rating: Three and a half stars