By MATTHEW BAKER
Running On Empty (1988) Directed by Sidney Lumet Martha Plimpton knows a thing or two about activism. She has campaigned around the world for LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and many other issues connected to human equality. There is little surprise that her parents met while performing in the original Broadway production of Hair. And it is equally poetic that this former Players board member had an early screen success in Running On Empty, Sidney Lumet’s late, atypical, underrated masterpiece about a family of anti-Vietnam War activists on the run from the authorities after a demonstration goes terribly wrong. Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) accidentally blinded and paralyzed a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be present at the arms factory they blew up in the early 1970s. Now, with sons Danny and Harry (River Phoenix and Jonas Abry) in tow, they change their names, appearances, and residence every few months to stay a step ahead of the Feds. Young Danny is on the cusp of adulthood and ready to pursue his own life. A piano prodigy, he discovers that a Juilliard education and a classical career are not as far out of reach as he might have once believed. But is he willing to break up the family unit? An additional fly in the ointment comes when Danny falls in love with his high school music teacher’s daughter, Lorna Phillips, a role that could easily be a stock love interest. But the wily Plimpton infuses her with rebellious wit and intense sincerity. With no tolerance for fake politeness, Lorna delights in Danny’s spontaneity even as it confuses her. “You’re certifiable!” is her frequent expression of bemused approval as he switches gears. Later, as their romance deepens, and as she becomes more aware of the skeletons in his closet, her outsider’s perspective makes her the conscience of the film: “Why should you bear the burden of someone else’s life?” In perhaps the film’s most charming scene, Lorna attends a birthday party for Michael’s mother, Annie. Arthur, always alert and slightly paranoid, views the outsider with distrust. As the party progresses, Lorna’s gift becomes the most immediately appropriate and, when Arthur turns on some music to accompany his dishwashing, it is Lorna who begins to dance. Within a minute, everyone has joined her and she is the life of the party. Even the world-weary fugitive is charmed and he asks his son: “Are you sure this is the Phillips kid? They didn’t switch her at the hospital, did they?” Running On Empty runs 116 minutes. Available on iTunes, Google Play, and other online streaming services.
Matthew Baker is a New York City historian and tour guide, newsletter editor for the National Federation of Tourist Guide Associations, and producer of the annual GANYC Apple Awards. A Player since 2000, he is artistic director of Poetry At The Players. His "Players On Screen" posts feature lesser-known appearances by our members.