At a CityBeat party 10 years ago an acquaintance pulled me aside and asked earnestly, “When you write a harsh review of a play, do you use a different byline? Is it Tom McElfresh?” My friend Tom was standing about 10 feet from this conversation, so I pointed to him and said, “No, there really is a Tom McElfresh, and he’s right there.”
I’m sorry to say that Tom’s not right there anymore; he passed away on Feb. 16 at the age of 80, released from months of declining health. Not only was he my backup theater reviewer at CityBeat from 1998 until 2010, he was a dear friend — even though we sometimes differed about theater productions we saw. His critical voice was one that some theater performers feared: Tom was not shy about pointing out an inadequacy onstage. But he was never unfair. In fact, I valued Tom’s observations in CityBeat because I knew that while we might disagree, he knew what he was writing about.
He was the most thorough, conscientious arts critic I have known, sometimes returning to see a production a second time before he wrote about it, often reading a script carefully before watching a show. Tom especially reveled in the works of Shakespeare (he was a charter member of the Mercantile Library’s Canon Club), and he probably wrote more often than I did about productions at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company during his 12 years of coverage for CityBeat. (He wrote more than 100 reviews over that period.) Tom’s insights were always profound, insightful, well argued and eminently fair.
That’s not to say that he stuck to the classics. From 2006 to 2010, he was an eager observer of Cincinnati Fringe Festival productions as a member of the reviewing team I assembled annually. Performers and audience members appreciated his candid remarks, and his appetite for taking in as many shows as possible was boundless.
Tom generally attended opening nights at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati where he loved to see productions of new plays, fresh from New York City. If they were comedies, I could always pick out his distinctive laugh in the crowd. In fact, he often led such outbursts, so quick was he to pick up on a joke or a witty turn of phrase.
When I moved to Cincinnati in 1980, Tom was writing film and theater reviews for the Cincinnati Enquirer. In the mid-1980s the daily set him aside for other writers, none as astute as he, in my opinion.
When I became CityBeat’s arts editor in 1998, I approached him about serving as my backup. He was rather dismissive of my invitation: “I don’t think I even remember how to do that,” he scoffed — never mentioning that he’d been a charter member of the American Theatre Critics Association. I persisted and finally he agreed to write about a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Of course, he turned in a solid piece of criticism and sheepishly told me that he guessed he did remember how and that he’d like to keep at it. I worried a bit that he was after my job before long — he kept volunteering to do more and more. It was great fun to have him supporting me, and I think we provided balanced coverage: Tom was less interested in musicals than I (although he was an aficionado of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan), so we had no problem dividing up assignments.
It was a sad day in 2010 when he told me his hearing had deteriorated to a point that he was no longer confident he could do a good job of absorbing a performance. But it was typical of him to be candid and forthright.
Since then Tom and I have regularly had lunch every month or two — usually at one of his favorite Chinese or Mexican restaurants — with him asking me countless questions about this theater company or that production and telling me stories about performers and performances from before my time in Cincinnati. I already miss those conversations.
In digging around for more about Tom’s life, I came across a report of a visit he made to his daughter’s high school to speak about writing and criticism.
He told them, “Criticism does not tell you what to think. It simply tells you to think.”
That’s exactly what Tom’s writing and conversations always did for me. Maybe occasionally I’ll be able to live up to his standards — and I might even deserve to use his byline.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]