The Making of Ordinary Americans 
By Sheryl Flatow
Elizabeth Dimon
Elizabeth Dimon can’t recall when she initially became aware of Gertrude Berg, the creator, producer, writer, and star of The Goldbergs, the first successful sitcom on American television. She only knows that it was well over a decade ago and she was immediately captivated. “This woman had such an incredible warmth about her,” says Dimon. “I started to learn about her, and found she was a remarkable actor and entrepreneur. She wrote all her own scripts, beginning with her radio show [which premiered in 1929] and all the way through her TV show. For a woman to do what she did in that time period was pretty amazing. When the documentary about her came out, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, I got a little obsessed. I ordered DVDs of The Goldbergs, I got her biography, her autobiography, her cookbook. I think what fascinated me was she had been an icon, and now she’s virtually forgotten.”
Dimon also saw Berg as someone who would be a great character to portray. She began considering the possibility of trying to write a play about the television pioneer, which would give her a role “that I could continue to play as I age.” A few years ago, she brought her obsession to William Hayes, PBD’s producing artistic director. They decided to apply for a grant to commission a Gertrude Berg play, but they didn’t get it.
By then, Hayes had also come under Berg’s spell. “I’d never heard of her when Beth first told me about her,” he says. “I looked her up online and immediately became very intrigued.” He delved into research, and was hooked. “It was pretty extraordinary for a woman, especially a Jewish woman, to rise to such fame and status in the era that she did. The more I learned about her, the more interested I became. But when the grant didn’t come through, we stepped away from her. And then I realized that her story had now become an obsession for me as well. I knew that if I felt that strongly, I needed to commission a play.”
William Hayes and Joseph McDonough
He was looking for a seasoned playwright who showed “the same level of passion that Beth and I had.” When speaking one day with Joseph McDonough, he piqued the playwright’s interest. “I was so unfamiliar with her that when Bill told me about her, I thought he’d said Gertrude Bird,” McDonough says. Once he discovered his mistake, he began gathering information and joined the Berg fan club. “It’s amazing what a powerhouse she was and how popular she was,” he says. “She was so far ahead of her time, but she is not remembered as the important figure in our culture that she should be.”
Elizabeth Dimon and Margery Lowe
Ordinary Americans, which received its world premiere at PBD on December 6 and continues through January 5, seeks to correct that staggering oversight. The play does more than introduce audiences to a major figure in television history, an artist and savvy businesswoman who had total control over her show and her material, and whose portrayal of Molly Goldberg earned her the first-ever Emmy Award for Best Actress. It shines the spotlight on the courageous stand she took in the face of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism, when she stood up for actor Philip Loeb, her husband on The Goldbergs, who was blacklisted. That chapter in their lives is the focal point of the play. 
“She tried to save her friend and her show, and was really heroic in standing up to McCarthyism before just about anybody,” says McDonough. “That’s what really excited me and why I was passionate about writing this play.” For Hayes, it was almost a moral imperative that the Communist witch hunt and the very personal way in which it affected the cast of The Goldbergs be the heart of the play, which he envisioned as a cautionary tale. “I was watching the rise of racism and anti-Semitism in our country, and how it paralleled what was happening in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “And I knew the play needed to hold up a mirror and say, ‘Folks, stop. We’re doing it again.’ The main theme of the play is the destructive nature of fear and paranoia.” In addition to Dimon, Ordinary Americans features David Kwiat as Philip Loeb, and Rob Donohoe, Margery Lowe, and Tom Wahl in multiple roles. 
Even though the scope of the play became much larger than the life of Gertrude Berg, her accomplishments as an artist, as a Jewish woman, and as an American continue to infuse the show. The play features scenes from The Goldbergs – one taken from an actual episode of the program, the rest invented by McDonough – that convey a sense of why she was such a welcome presence in Jewish homes and non-Jewish homes all across the country. (McDonough captures Berg’s writing style so adroitly that it’s impossible to tell who wrote what.)   
Ordinary Americans table read
“When I first watched The Goldbergs, I kept thinking, ‘What is the appeal?’” says Hayes. “And I realized that part of the appeal was the brilliance of opening up her window and treating you like her neighbor. People needed it at that time. It was like FDR and his fireside chats. Talking directly to each of us was ingenious, and it’s why she gained so much trust.”       

“She presented an American family,” says Dimon. “Even though it was a sitcom, the show always had a little message at the end that the audience would learn from, or some ethical lesson that she would learn or her children would learn. You know how it’s often said that the more specific you are, the more universal your work becomes? Think of Fiddler on the Roof: it’s so specific but it plays well everywhere because family is family. Or My Big Fat Greek Wedding; you don’t have to be Greek to relate to it. Gertrude understood that and it came across, which is why everybody loved her.”  
McDonough adds, “That’s the reason the play is called Ordinary Americans. It’s one of the main points of the play. Tillie, as everybody called Gertrude Berg, was adamant that she wasn’t writing a Jewish sitcom; she was writing an American sitcom. This was very important to her, and very important to me as I wrote this play: it’s a story that I hope appeals to all Americans. And it’s critical in our society today, when we have voices out there that are trying to separate us.”  
Joseph McDonough watching
Ordinary Americans play reading
2019 New Year/New Plays Festival
McDonough began working on Ordinary Americans over two years ago, and the play has evolved extensively during that time. Now a trim, intermissionless 90 minutes, the show ran close to three hours when it was first presented to the public in a reading at last season’s New Year/New Plays Festival. “We learned a lot from that,” says Hayes. “We learned it was too long and that there was too much exposition that wasn’t moving the story forward. We also discovered that we had the wrong ending.”
“The Festival was a great experience because it told me what was working and what wasn’t working,” says McDonough, “and it resulted in our massaging and tightening the play quite a bit. One of the big things that came out of it was that we ended up dropping one cast member who played two roles, Philip Loeb’s son and the son in The Goldbergs. It became clear that they were taking us beyond the story we wanted to tell and were not necessary to the play.” 
2019 New Year/New Plays Festival
David Kwiat, Margery Lowe, Elizabeth Dimon, and Rob Donohoe
Some crucial changes took place more recently. Roughly six months before Ordinary Americans opened, it became a memory play. Even later in the process, Hayes and McDonough recognized that the play’s most gut-wrenching scene, in which Loeb testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was in the wrong spot. “We’d lived with the play for almost two years, and then in a matter of three or four months before we opened, we realized that we had in the middle of the play the scene that had to be at the end,” says Hayes. “So we reworked it, and the play became a tragedy.” They continued to edit and modify and strengthen the piece throughout rehearsals.    
All plays based on real people take artistic license. McDonough says that with Ordinary Americans, he felt an obligation to try to be “factually accurate and truthful.” But, he adds, “I never met any of these people, so to a certain degree I’m just guessing. There’s not a lot out there on Tillie beyond the documentary and one biography. She wrote an autobiography which helped me to get the flavor of her voice and her personality, but the stories were about her early life so they weren’t pertinent to the play. There’s an interview she did with Edward R. Murrow, so I could hear what she really sounded like away from The Goldbergs, although I’m aware that when people are being interviewed, they’re not necessarily letting their hair down. There’s even less available on Philip Loeb, but I was able to look over some of his papers on microfilm at the New York Public Library. I found some handwritten notes that he’d made in preparation for testifying before HUAC. There wasn’t a lot, but I was able to take some of his phrases and thoughts and put them into the play. I also found the eulogy his sister delivered at his funeral, and incorporated some of her thoughts into the senate testimony as well.”

McDonough also found an interview with Frank Stanton, the president of CBS who has a confrontation with Berg in the play. The interview was done decades after the play takes place, but it addresses his handling of the blacklist and McCarthyism. “He explained why he did what he did, and it’s in the play almost word for word,” says McDonough. “I wanted to be fair to the guy, so I figured I’d let him speak for himself.”

Dimon, whose obsession with Berg is the reason Ordinary Americans exists, says she’s “honored and grateful” for the opportunity she’s been given. “I hope I’m doing Gertrude proud, because I really do think she was remarkable. All I can do is portray her to the best of my ability, based on who we think she was and on how Joe presents her: a woman of courage and passion, a woman with a lot of talent and a lot of chutzpah.”