Arts » Theater

Happy endings?

How a former lobbyist decided to tackle a story about a Butte madam

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It takes a few minutes for Carrie Ann Mallino to open the door to her Missoula house. When she does, she apologizes with a big smile and explains that she's fighting with her father. Inside the living room, her father, David Mallino, sits in one chair, his wife, Margaret, in another. As it turns out, "fighting" for the Mallinos just means good-natured debate with a heavy dose or ribbing.

The family is discussing David's new play, Ruby, a story about Ruby Garrett, the real life Butte madam and owner of the Dumas Brothel who killed her abusive husband in 1959 and served nine months for it. Carrie, 40, is directing the play, which opens this week at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. She has a production company called Sunshine Unlimited and a theater background that includes directing several Shakespeare plays and other productions in Hamilton, Stevensville and Missoula. Despite the looming deadline, the Mallinos are still tying up a few loose ends that seem like pretty big ones.

"First of all, we have no idea how it's going to end," David says. "We have been fighting over the ending since I copyrighted it. [Carrie] didn't like my ending. My ending fit the historical story, or came close. She didn't think we should do that. So we went back and forth. I finally gave up and said I'm going to write three endings. So the copy of the play now has three different endings—and I'm not sure she's going to pick any of the three."

Ruby is David's first play. At 70, he's accomplished a lot of things, none of which appear, at first glance, to lead to playwriting. Carrie recalls that her father took her to see A Midsummer Night's Dream when she was 10, and introduced her to the theater world. But he spent most of his working life in Washington, D.C., as a journalist for The National Journal, after which he worked for the political magazine's consulting arm doing public policy and research. He went to Capitol Hill to work for the Department of Labor and then, as he says, he found his "true calling" in 1980 when he became a lobbyist for the steelworkers union. He devoted 30 years to labor rights, during which time he became a partner at a law firm (without a law degree, no less) and got his doctorate at the University of Maryland in government and politics. He's a person who makes tough work sound easy. Between his sharp one-liners and gruff delivery, he's a joker.

"I always wanted to write a play," he says. "It's fiction—though some people claim I've been writing fiction my whole life."

David first heard about Ruby when he read her obituary last year. The former madam died at 94, leaving behind a colorful history that captured his imagination.

"So I just sat here on my laptop and I just started writing," he says. "The more I wrote, the more fun it became. And, frankly, I surprised myself, because it didn't take very long."

Carrie laughs at this. "The first copy didn't take very long," she says.

"Yes. The first copy," says David. "We're now on about the 30th."

TOMMY MARTINO
  • Tommy Martino

David's knowledge of Butte came through Montana Congressman Pat Williams, a Butte native whom he befriended in D.C. But he also felt a kinship with the city, having grown up in a Pennsylvania steel town where, as in Butte, labor issues were central to the public discussion. He's fierce about the importance of good lobbying and annoyed that it's become a dirty word.

"There was a bumper sticker floating around Washington, D.C., for a while and it basically said, 'Don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I'm a piano player in a whorehouse,'" he says and laughs. "So, there's the connection."

David also had Williams take a look at the script during a lunchtime gathering. "I said, 'You're from Butte. You were a teenager when this happened. Tell me if I captured the flavor of the town.'" David says that Williams read it silently as the other people at the table talked. "He's paging through the thing and he wasn't saying a word. And then he looks up and he says, 'I want to be a part of this.' I came back and said, 'Carrie, we've got an issue. Pat says he wants to be a part of it. Is there a part for him?'"

"He would make the perfect judge," Carrie said.

Williams was cast as Judge Jack Flynn. (He requested a good Irish name, Carrie says.) Originally, David had written an unruly 26 characters into the play and Carrie managed to pare it down to 22. The play uses live action and shadow puppets to tell Ruby's story. It's not overly violent or sexual, but, though it's at MCT, it's not a play for children, Carrie warns. Musicians Grace Decker and Rebekah Cryder perform in the role of brothel ghosts, serving as a kind of Greek chorus. Composer/musician John Sporman created the score. He's arranged versions of Willie Nelson's "Red-headed Stranger" and "Cakewalk Into Town," which was made famous by Taj Mahal. But the other songs are originals. For those, Sporman wrote the instrumentation and David wrote the lyrics.

"I had never written lyrics before so I went ahead and tried my hand at that," David says. "And it didn't come out too bad."

Carrie won't allow her father to see the rehearsals because, as it turns out, she has chosen an ending to Ruby, though she won't say what it is or if it's one of the endings her father wrote.

"There are a couple of surprises in there for him," she says. "He wanted the play to end with a version of Puck's epilogue from A Midsummer Night's Dream. I said, 'You cannot end every play with Puck's epilogue.' And we went back and forth on that. But I created the ending that I think is appropriate. I would like the people of Missoula to enjoy it, but making him proud of his play is my ultimate goal."

Ruby opens at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts Thu., Sept. 12 and runs through Sun., Sept. 15. Shows are at 8 PM nightly Thu. through Sat., with matinees at 2 PM on Sat. and Sun. $15.

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