Virginia Opera’s Fellow Travelers – Familiar Scenery Along a Different Road

Virginia Opera's "Fellow Travelers" at the Harrison Opera House. Photo credit: Dave Pearson 2023

Norfolk, VA – What would love, lust, life, betrayal, and regret be without a little ‘government oversight’? Who would have thought that a story, set in the 1950s, portraying a government effort to vilify homosexuality by pushing the idea that the act itself was a threat to national security and predisposed those in question to being security risks with the Russians would be somewhat applicable to Washington in 2023? Virginia Opera‘s performance of “Fellow Travelers” at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk, VA in January 2023 was a look back at a time that looks eerily similar to today. 

The production was created by Virginia Beach native, Gregory Spears.  It takes us back to a time when Senator Joseph McCarthy (yes, that Joe McCarthy) and others tried to drive homosexuals out of the government. I went in cold, knowing little about the story or the characters. I was warned ahead of time that it was a little edgy, a lot steamy (and I am sure there was more than steam a-rising for some), was not made for all ages (PG-13?) and may make some a little uncomfortable (my kind of story). It was all that, done in a way that anyone with half an open mind could relate to. 

The performance kicked off on a simple park bench in Washington D.C. A young journalist and seemingly naïve Timothy (Andres Acosta), is reviewing his notes from the wedding of Joseph McCarthy. Enter Hawkins (Joseph Lattanzi), a handsome State Department employee who is definitely wise to the ways of the world. The opening was key and well done. Acosta was wonderful as a naïve young man, giddily taking in this new life and curious about the attention paid to him by such a man of the world. Contrasting the joy of youth, Lattanzi killed it with Hawkins’ worldly air with a touch of narcissism (not too much) obviously attracted to Timothy’s wide eyed view of his newfound world. 

Timothy and Hawkins in Fellow Travelers. VA Opera Jan 2023. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

From here, the story moved quite quickly (16 scenes in about 2 hours). After his stint as a reporter, Timothy gets a job speech writing for Senator Potter (John Fulton). With the help of Potter’s staff (Kyle White and Jeremy Harr), young Timothy is educated to the ways of Washington. 

Timothy delivers a thank you to Hawkins’ office where we meet Mary (Katherine Pracht) and Ms. Lightfoot (Katrina Thurman). The character development (and the acting, in addition to the vocals) to this point was very important. As previously stated, Timothy was wide eyed and naïve, Hawkins was the wise and confident, Potter was, well, stereotypical politician, and his staff, all knowing, boisterous, and more than happy to be part of the Washington machine. In Hawkins’ office, it was obvious Mary would be the caring and good friend Timothy needed, while something about Ms. Lightfoot just made me feel like she was a… not a nice person. 

Remember I mentioned steam? Well, it was abundant when, out of blue, Hawkins shows up at Timothy’s apartment. Yes, Bermuda is nice this time of year. Timothy is conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his feelings for Hawkins (yet another twist). 

Timothy and Hawkins, after a steamy romp, in Fellow Travelers (VA Opera) in January 2023. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

This is where we see the Washington destruction machine set in motion. Many plots unfold at a Christmas party. Mary (a good friend of Hawkins) disapproves of his behavior with Timothy, Timothy is recruited to join the Army, gossip between aides and politicians, and remember that not so nice person Ms. Lightfoot? Yeah, she spies on Timothy and Hawkins and gets a little 50’s dirt. 

The dirt does not go to waste, as Hawkins soon finds himself being interrogated for deviant behavior by none other than the commie hunter himself, Senator McCarthy (Joshua Jeremiah). High pressure questioning, a polygraph, and stripping down to his skivvies does not break Hawkins and he leaves denying any deviant activity. To celebrate he goes back to Timothy’s apartment and again they engage in the production of steam. As the curtain comes down, Hawkins and Timothy embrace as the entire Washington establishment looks on from the shadows. How timely. At the intermission the writing was on the wall, but of course, we could always hope for a surprise. 

Fellow Travelers Part 1

Now it is obvious I am not an opera aficionado, this being only my sixth (five of which have been Virginia Opera productions). Based on my limited experience, there were only two potential outcomes to this story. The first being everything works out, everyone is filled with joy and they all live happily ever after. That was not very likely which leaves the second potential outcome, someone gets thrown under the bus (screwed) and the characters are who were thought they were. Regardless of the outcome, one could expect a few twists and turns. Fellow Travelers did not disappoint. 

After the intermission we learn of a government cover-up and the plot to pass the blame on others leaving the powerful high and dry (thank goodness such things never happen in Washington today). 

Timothy is warned by his new confidant, Mary, of Hawkins’ character flaws which appears to push Timothy to do the unthinkable, enlist in the Army. Distraught, he tells Hawkins of his decision under cover of darkness at a government building. 

Everyone is watching, Fellow Travelers at the Harrison Opera House, January 2023. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

It was about this time I noticed something about the set changes (which were frequent). The cast members (mostly playing government employees) were the ones changing the sets under cover of darkness, always appearing to be spying. Their presence everywhere and in every situation added an interesting (intentional?) twist to the tale. 

Now for a big twist… Timothy, writing to both Mary and Hawkins, while serving in France, tells of his adventures and disdain for the Russians. Hawkins is on the beach with HIS WIFE, Lucy (Kaileigh Riess), reading letters from Timothy and hinting he would enjoy rekindling the affair upon Timothy’s return. He even goes as far as to rent a humble abode for the sole purpose of seeing Timothy. Hawkins has a change of heart and breaks it off with Timothy. A saddened Timothy once again turns to the priest and makes a confession. 

Timothy and Hawkins, Fellow Travelers by VA Opera. January 2023. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Twist number two comes as we learn that, in order to further alienate Timothy, Hawkins tells the government homosexual hit team that he suspected Timothy warranted additional surveillance. Hawkins does express some regret for his actions, but we were left to wonder if the regret was because of what he was doing to another person or because he actually loved Timothy. Have we heard the story before? The powerful, the naïve, the pressure (by the even more powerful), and the betrayal to save one’s skin… all in the name of politics. 

As Timothy prepares to leave D.C. we see him go to each person in his life. With the exception of Mary, everyone else turned their back on him (everyone needs a Mary in their lives). It made my heart sink.

The friend among turned backs. Fellow Travelers, VA Opera, January 2023. Photo credit: Dave Pearson

Before his departure, we find him once again on a familiar park bench. Enter Hawkins again. They exchange some small talk and part ways. As Timothy departs, a wall of images of the victims of the government LBGTQ persecution appears. Timothy stares, perhaps thinking his picture should be added to the wall. Timothy walks off into the light. 

Now I admit, I focused more on the storyline than I did on the vocals. Every member of the cast was phenomenal, combining physical acting with powerful vocals that delivered a shot of emotion at every turn. Have I said recently I have fallen in love with the art? 

As I left for the light, I looked back at the story and could not help but feeling that while some of the travelers may have changed or may be traveling with different luggage, the influences and characters are not much different. A lack of trust in government, powerful taking advantage of the less powerful, coverups, and good and bad people. Fellow Travelers is a must see. 

Fellow Travelers Part 2

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Be sure the catch the remaining performances of Fellow Travelers in Fairfax February 4-5 and in Richmond February 10 and 12. 

Fellow Travelers Credits

Joseph Lattanzi – Hawkins Fuller
Andres Acosta – Timothy Laughlin
Katherine Pracht – Mary Johnson
Katrina Thurman – Miss Lightfoot
Joshua Jeremiah – Sen.Joseph McCarthy/Estonian Frank/Interrogator
John Fulton – Sen. Charles Potter/General Arlie/Bartender
Kaileigh Riess – Lucy
Kyle White – Tommy McIntyre
Jeremy Harr – Sen. Potter’s Assistant/Bookseller/Technician/French Priest/Party Guest

Adam Turner – Conductor
Kevin Newbury – Director
Gregory Spears – Composer
Greg Pierce – Libretto

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Dave Pearson is based out of Richmond, VA by way of Hayward, WI. He has long had a passion for music. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, he rocked out to the likes of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and The Lettermen. Then, one Saturday night, being the rebel he was born to be, he caught an Alice Cooper interview (it may have been on The Midnight Special) and saw him perform, “Welcome to My Nightmare”. Dave was hooked on Rock and Roll (and many other genres as well). Dave has enjoyed (amateur) photography to some degree most of his adult life. Recently Dave started to apply his event photography skills in various music settings with success. He finds that photographing a performance gives him a much greater appreciation for the artist.