Literary Lovers, or Just Canny Operators?: SEX WITH STRANGERS at FPCT Makes You Decide

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Literary Lovers, or Just Canny Operators?: SEX WITH STRANGERS at FPCT Makes You Decide

Matthew Lindsay Payne and Kathryne Daniels

Posted in BroadwayWorld.com September 15, 2018

“What the heck was that?” is apt to be the question on many theatergoers’ minds as they file out of Sex With StrangersLaura Eason‘s two-character drama now at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Is the play a comedy? A romance? A melodrama? A play of ideas? A jeremiad against digital modernity and/or celebrity culture and/or bro culture? Eason’s script, a melange of all of these things, does not make it easy to decide which one predominates. It’s not even easy to say what is really happening. Is there a love story going on, or is this just the spectacle of two canny operators each trying to exploit each other? Do they know themselves?

This much seems clear: Ethan (Matthew Lindsay Payne), who has parlayed his success with a blog about his sexual conquests called Sex With Strangers into two New York Times Bestsellers but who is now seeking to become an author of literary fiction, stumbles into a rural Michigan B&B in the middle of a snowstorm and encounters Olivia (Kathryne Daniels), a published but so-far unsuccessful novelist and fellow-guest, whose sole novel Ethan just happens to know and admire. Sparks fly, and sex ensues, and then creative sparks fly too. Ethan introduces Olivia into the worlds of Internet and print-media celebrity. As the play progresses, and we get into the second act, Olivia, under Ethan’s aegis (and trickery) becomes somewhat adept at winning on Ethan’s playing field, but their personal relationship, however one characterizes it, hits troubled waters, in part because Ethan’s persona is irreducibly built on the shallow exploitation of women. He insists that there is a cleavage between that persona and himself, and that the women he had formerly involved himself with were in any case no victims, but eager participants in the quest for new-media stardom of their own. Olivia, who does not necessarily buy into the cleavage notion, seems unpersuaded.

Olivia, meanwhile, is wrestling with a problem endemic to writers of serious fiction: such writing tends to be autobiographical, and to do it well typically entails large amounts of self-revelation. How is a writer of the stuff supposed to maintain her privacy? And what are we to make of it when Ethan repeatedly overrides her privacy demands, ostensibly for her own good and with demonstrable good results? It leads to problems of authenticity for her that are almost as large as his.

In the end, because the mask each character wears contradicts what each claims is his/her true personality, and because the moral significance of what they do depends to a great degree on who is acting and who is acted upon, we cannot finally state with certainty whether there is any “there there,” in Gertrude Stein‘s phrase. The very last thing that happens in the play betokens ambiguity.

With such a play, directorial choices will loom large. It would appear that the play has been produced rather differently at different places and times, from its first developmental performances at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2009 and 2011 to Off-Broadway in 2014 and then onto regional and community theater. (Regionally, it has been put on by Alexandria’s Signature Theatre and Annapolis’ Colonial Players.) Along the way, however, most directors have cast Olivias who conformed to Eason’s description, “smart, sexy, outwardly strong but covering some fragility,” and Ethans who were, in Eason’s phrase “very charismatic [and] sexy.” For instance, Off-Broadway Olivia was played by the tall, willowy, and forceful Anna Gunn and Ethan by Billy Magnussen, fresh from playing the boy-toy Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. The current director, Patrick Gorirossi, has gone in another direction, with an Olivia who is mostly about covering the fragility, wearing baggy sweatpants for much of the action, and acting ungainly in a slapsticky way, and an Ethan who is stronger in the comic timing than in the charisma department. Sometimes this matters. For instance, in puncturing Ethan’s self-justification at one point, Olivia mocks him: “You’re kind-of a modern day Mother Teresa! But instead of helping poor strangers, you bone them!” To this Ethan replies: “I do what I can.” That line will sound differently coming from someone with charisma who knows it than from a jokester.

This exchange also leads me to mention that the credits in the program list a specialty I have not encountered before, an Intimacy Choreographer (Emily Sucher). This designation seems like a great idea, especially in this era when performers are speaking out about harassment of all sorts, including liberties taken onstage that are arguably in character but which make the recipients uncomfortable. Here, in keeping with the jokiness I have noted in the overall direction, the sex usually seems to be deliberately fumbling, awkward and somewhat self-conscious. Video I have seen from other performances makes clear it is not always that way, and it is not called for in the script, which simply says, for instance, of the first bedding: “ETHAN kisses her. Passionately. She kisses him back. Passionately. Clothes begin to come off. Sex is imminent.”

In the end, then, the answer this production seems to provide to the question “Who are these characters really?” is that they are not the glamorous folk they pretend to be for public consumption. The problem this raises is that by the end, this couple kind of arethat way. And again, costume changes consistent with this reading and not called for in the script tell the story. The final appearance of each of them looks more put-together – and also more like their allegedly deceptive personas. It’s all very confusing, as I stated at the outset.

While I obviously would have preferred making them both more glamorous throughout, I thought the approach that was used with Olivia was not without its benefits. Kathryne Daniels gives Olivia a way of visibly thinking things through and of making intellectual and emotional connections that is convincing, and very appealing to watch. A more sophisticated Olivia would react differently. Ethan, I think, is a harder role to make real. He has built a career out of acting like an exploitative jerk, and the fact that he may have undiscovered fictional genius, even if one believes it (which I found hard to do), and possibly an inner monogamous boyfriend, still, in the here and now, jerk is as jerk does. His journey out of that predicament is not cleanly or clearly sketched. Matthew Lindsay Payne does what he can with this construct, but it’s very hard to pull off.

Because it is usually easiest to write about what one knows, writers do tend to write about writers a lot. There are times this phenomenon can give rise to a kind of inbred quality, and there is some of that in this play. For instance, I was wondering how many members of the audience got the reference to “FSG” in the publishing world. More importantly, the struggles of authors with the tendency to bare their souls and the equal but opposite tendency to maintain their privacy, no matter how fascinating to writers, are the kind of thing where a little bit goes a long way with the rest of us. Nonetheless, if the subject of writers is of interest to you, this play is a decent effort to come to grips with it. And the play will certainly keep challenging you the way a puzzle does. It begins, no doubt portentously, with a question that it never completely answers (Olivia to Ethan “Who are you?”) and it ends with deliberate lack of clarity over whether the characters have any future. In short, this is theater which keeps the audience on its toes, no matter what label you slap on it.

Copyright Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photograph. Photo credit: Fells Point Corner Theatre.

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Every One of Them White

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Every One of Them White

To be published in The Daily Record the week of October 28, 2018

“Enjoy glimpses reminiscent of traditional holidays gone by with this highly detailed Holiday Village Set,” says the ad copy on the Costco website.[1] For $99.99, Costco will sell you an assemblage of models of various snow-topped buildings, a skating rink, trees, and lots of merry-makers, including carolers and musicians and children putting the finishing touches on a snowman. The dress of these happy figures is, I’d guess, late Victorian. It is a Currier & Ives evocation of an imagined past, a bit of cute and harmless nostalgia.

What Genius?

Except: By my count, there are 35 merry-makers depicted in the set, every one of them white. (And I’m not counting the snowman.) What genius among Costco’s buyers missed the impact of a representation like this in today’s marketplace? How did it happen?[2]

My answer: There is a deep dynamic at work here, rendering what should have been obvious quite overlookable. When we white folks retreat into a happy recall of eras gone by, we regularly evict nonwhites from the world our imagination reconstructs. Take the classic nostalgic musicals Oklahoma! and The Music Man. As discussed by Warren Hoffman in his book The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, each of these is set in what appears to just happen to be an all-white locale. But nothing “just happens” like that.

Oklahoma, the name of the territory whose newly-established statehood is celebrated at the end of Oklahoma!, is literally the Choctaw word for “red people.” The farmers and cowboys evoked by the show had historically displaced and were living, often illegitimately, on lands set aside for Native Americans, after the latter had been previously deported to Oklahoma during the notorious “trail of tears” ethnic cleansing of the American South. As Hoffman puts it: “Oklahoma! rewrites history by expunging the painful aspects of frontier history while celebrating the rewards of white American pioneer spirit, features that have helped solidify Oklahoma!’s place in the pantheon of beloved American musicals.”[3]

And The Music Man is set in “Hawkeye Iowa,” “hawkeye” being ironically a nickname coined to pay tribute to a Sauk tribal chief. Iowa was a state from which Native Americans were forcibly removed, ironically making it safe for the show to evoke them by having the white wives of the town perform an “Indian war dance.” And of course there is the famous lyric in which the con man tries to rile up the River City townspeople by warning them that their children may be becoming fans of “ragtime,” obviously coded as African American music. But of course that fear is groundless; River City is and will remain lily-white, its whiteness exerting a potent if unspoken part of its grip on our imagination as a piece of unspoiled Americana.[4]

There Is Harm

One could ask what is the harm in a fantasy retreat into an exclusively white world. It’s what we do, not what we feel, that matters, right?

But there is harm. As educator Robin DiAngelo writes in her book White Fragility: “As a white person, I can openly and unabashedly reminisce about ‘the good old days.’ Romanticized recollections of the past and calls for a return to former ways are a function of white privilege, which manifests itself in the ability to remain oblivious to our racial history.” DiAngelo reminds us of the facts that would make incorporating non-white people into this fantasy discordant – and forgive me for quoting at length: “Consider any period in the past from the perspective of people of color: 246 years of brutal enslavement; the rape of black women for the pleasure of white men and to produce more enslaved workers; the selling off of black children; the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, Indian removal acts, and reservations; indentured servitude, lynching, and mob violence; sharecropping; Chinese exclusion laws; Japanese American internment; Jim Crow laws of mandatory segregation; black codes; bans on black jury service; bans on voting; imprisoning people for unpaid work; medical sterilization and experimentation; employment discrimination; educational discrimination; inferior schools; biased laws and policing practices; redlining and subprime mortgages; mass incarceration; racist media representations; cultural erasures, attacks, and mockery; and untold and perverted historical accounts, and you can see how a romanticized past is strictly a white construct.”[5]  What does it say about us if we really want to fantasize a world exclusively populated by people who perpetrated these things?

Hollywood, the dream factory par excellence, has traditionally reinforced the fantasy as well. We need only remember the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of 2016, when there was not a single acting Academy Award nomination (out of 20) for a performer of color, to see how current the avoidance of nonwhites in our fantasy lives is.

Comfort Zones

The fantasy affects real life. In Baltimore, where I live, racially restrictive covenants for some of the “best” neighborhoods, i.e. ones approximating most closely our collective versions of the American dream, assured that those fantasies-come-to-life would be uncontaminated by the intrusion of nonwhite faces, except in the roles of domestic help. (Antero Pietila’s book Not in My Neighborhood tells the tale.) Those covenants have been stricken down, but “white flight,” the retreat of white populations to rural settings or suburbs, coupled with the mortgage redlining DiAngelo mentions (now officially a thing of the past but still sometimes practiced) which penned black homebuyers in urban cores, has continued to enable the fabrication away from urban centers of close approximations of the monochromatic racial culture the Costco holiday village so ludicrously evokes.

It is important to emphasize that the dynamic is at play even among those of us who do not bear any ill-will to members of other races. Most of us genuinely reject bigotry. The pursuit of monochromatic worlds is mostly fueled by the pursuit of comfort, not by hatred. Our residential and educational practices betray unconscious and unacknowledged comfort zones. The holiday village demonstrates exactly what makes many of us comfortable. We white people need to break ourselves of those mental comfort zones, though, because we are powerful, and our dreams greatly affect what happens in real life. And what happens in real life, mostly, is segregation. We’ve changed the laws, but those changes have not brought us all that close to real desegregation; changes in our dreams and fantasies of a good life would do more.

Happy Holidays!

_______________

[1]  https://www.costco.com/Christmas-Village-with-Lights-%2526-Music.product.100405000.html viewed October 12, 2018. I attach my own photo of the item as I saw it in the store.

[2] An earlier version of this piece read slightly differently. It assumed that the Holiday Village intended to depict an American scene and had erased all nonwhite participants in that scene. An astute reader pointed out that collecting Victorian (and hence presumably British) holiday villages is a common pastime. And indeed, upon further inspection, I note that among the figures in the Village are three urchins, presumably mailing requests to Santa, clustered around a pillar box of a design only found in the British Isles and Empire/Commonwealth. See the erudite Wikipedia entry on Pillar Boxes. While one could quarrel that the pillar box depicted is of a design that (per Wikipedia) premiered in 1905 and Victoria died in 1901, and that the dress of the villagers looks a little out of place in the 20th century — in other words, that there is some anachronism going on, my friend’s point is well-taken. This is probably an attempt to evoke a world that was predominantly white in a way that the United States of whatever era is being hearkened to was not, and so erasure of those historically present is not happening after all. My point about the tin ear of the Costco buyer in foisting this evocation upon Costco’s diverse customers in this diverse country and time stands, however.

[3] Hoffman, Warren. The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (p. 66). Rutgers University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] See the discussion in Hoffman’s book at 93-95.

[5] DiAngelo, Robin J.. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (p. 59). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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The New Campus Harassment Hearing Regulations: A First Look

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The New Campus Harassment Hearing Regulations: A First Look

Published in the Daily Record September 21, 2018

Three years ago in this space, I decried due process deficiencies in the way colleges and universities generally handle allegations of student-on-student sexual harassment and assault. No one is in favor of sexual violence, but due process matters too, and right now it tends to be dangerously inadequate. Pre-hearing discovery of evidence is often forbidden. Often the accused cannot confront or cross-examine the accuser. Academic tribunals are generally comprised of teachers and/or students without legal credentials, in a setting where proper application of legal rules is critical.  Because lawyers are generally barred from advocating on behalf of either an accuser or an accused, there may be no properly trained voice in the room when legal questions arise.

Dear Colleague

I was also concerned at the Obama administration’s directive, in a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter signed by Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, on how federally-funded educational institutions generally should handle allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Dear Colleague exacerbated these problems by prescribing an inadequate standard of proof and mandating pre-hearing treatment of the accused that basically presupposed his guilt. It also specifically approved of denying the accused the right to cross-examine an accuser because it “may be traumatic or intimidating,” never mind that it may also deprive the dishonestly accused of the only path to showing the tribunal that the accuser is lying.

While I am not a fan of Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, I did applaud her decision a year ago to rescind Dear Colleague. At the time, DeVos stated that the Department would in due course issue new regulations. The New York Times has now seen those regulations in draft form, and its early report on them is mostly encouraging. Though they do not always require it, the reported new rules at least enable a better balance between the interests of the accuser and the accused.

There has been controversy, for instance, over when a complaint first triggers the institution’s obligation to investigate and respond. Bush and Obama administration rules in effect deputized all staff to receive complaints, and held institutions responsible to investigate and remediate as soon as a complaint was received, no matter who received it.[1] The Times reports that the DeVos Department considers the responsibility to be triggered only by a complaint “to ‘an official who has the authority to institute corrective measures,’ not, for instance, a residential advisor in a dormitory.” This makes sense. A complainant may wish to have her circumstances known to a dorm advisor but not to escalate the matter to investigation or hearing. Both the accused and the institution likewise benefit when the process is unambiguously initiated or not. (The Times noted that schools have complained that earlier departmental guidances had “held them accountable for allegations of which they were not aware.”)

Clear-and-Convincing

The most important development is the change in requirements concerning the burden of proof. I was hardly alone in criticizing the Dear Colleague letter’s approach on this. Dear Colleague said that “in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard” rather than the clear-and-convincing standard which is commonly used in cases where important liberty rights are in the balance. Here, the accuser has a liberty interest in continuing her education at an institution that enjoys federal support and not being driven out by trauma. But the accused, who may be expelled, also has that interest, plus a liberty interest in avoiding unwarranted and serious reputational damage (likely to be an impediment to obtaining any professional license, for example). There is not a comparable level of stigma for the accuser if the complaint is not sustained. The jeopardy to the accused’s liberty interests is high, even before taking into account the other problems I have mentioned, all of which increase the risk of erroneous adjudication. Given all these hazards, the accused should be protected by the more demanding clear-and-convincing standard of proof.

The DeVos regulations are reported to allow but not require schools to choose the clear-and-convincing standard. One can only hope that, particularly at schools which increase the risk of erroneous findings of guilt via the mentioned procedural shortcomings, there will be an embrace of that standard.

Dear Colleague also sanctioned pre-hearing treatment of the accused as if he were guilty, for instance moving the alleged perpetrator (presumably involuntarily) to a different residence hall, and arranging for the complainant (but not the accused) to re-take a course or withdraw from a class without penalty. This differential treatment, not likely to escape the notice of student colleagues and faculty, would be stigmatizing to the accused – and there was no suggestion of any affirmative actions the institution might take to remove the stigma should be accused by exonerated.[2] The reporting on the new rules is somewhat unclear on the point in the proceedings at which the accused might be barred from campus, but conveys that this would only occur after “a safety and risk assessment.”

While the Times reporting does not make it clear what has become of the Dear Colleague abhorrence of cross-examination, it is to be hoped that fairness to the accused returns to this area once the new regulation is in place.

Location is Irrelevant

One reported aspect of the new regulations is discouraging. “Dear Colleague” placed schools under the obligation to respond to allegations of student-on-student harassment or abuse no matter where that allegedly occurred.[3] The new regulation would reportedly “hold schools responsible only for investigating episodes reported to have taken place within their own programs, or on their campuses, not, for instance, in off-campus parties.” Dear Colleague got this right, particularly in view of the legal roots of the entitlement of the federal government to intervene, namely Title IX’s requirement to make federally-assisted education available equally to all. If the focus is on availability, anything that interferes with that availability should come within the scope of the regulation, regardless where that interference occurs. When harassment by fellow-students can and no doubt does happen with, for instance, the receipt of a text when the victim reading it is halfway across the country, the geographic limits of a campus have no relevance.

Because we have not yet seen the text of the regulations, and the regulations have yet to go through notice-and-comment, this is only a nascent story. But it is mostly encouraging so far.

_________________

[1]. Dear Colleague Letter at 4.

[2]. Giving official publication to such exoneration might also violate student privacy rules.

[3]. Letter at 4.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Harassers as Comeback Kids?

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Harassers as Comeback Kids?

Published in the Daily Record August 27, 2018

As the outing of sexual harassers continues to bring down powerful and formerly admired men (it is almost always men), the question whether we give them second acts is bound to grow. It’s not a simple question.

A man does not lose his talent merely because a penchant for abusive behavior (or for looking the other way while someone else behaves abusively) has led to his downfall. He wakes up the day after his involuntary retirement just as able to do his job (CEO, director or actor, coach, archbishop, senator, you name it) as he was the previous day. Whether or not he has expressed contrition, there will be a large number of people who want nothing more to do with him, and who feel that his reemergence into a position of respect would be an affront. But he still has his skill set, and he would like another chance.

I am not addressing here whether the abuser morally deserves that second chance. I admit to being skeptical that there are many crimes, including those of violence, that merit permanent banishment from participation in our society. So I assume, if only for argument’s sake, that second chances are acceptable. And practically speaking, some are inevitable.

Dilemma

That said, there may be legal impediments. If the perpetrator worked in a regulated profession, he may well be confounded by a requirement that he exhibit “good moral character.”[1] Especially if his misconduct has resulted in convictions, readiness to meet the standard will probably elude him for a number of years. And certain kinds of jobs, for instance those involving a security clearance, probably will be out of reach even without convictions.

That still leaves a lot of jobs and ways of commanding respect that may remain open to such a man. The gatekeepers of those jobs and ways, and the consumers of the man’s work, will then have to choose how to respond. Case in point: the recent forays into public discourse by former federal appeals judge Alex Kozinski. As reported by the Washington Post, Kozinski, who resigned abruptly after accusations of various forms of sexual inappropriateness with employees, journalists, and colleagues surfaced, has recently sat for an hourlong radio interview and published a tribute to retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, dismaying Kozinski’s accusers. The Daily Journal’s editor responded to the dismay by saying the readers “understand that Kozinski is a complicated figure, a man who could be crude, grotesque and hurtful and also a towering intellect who contributed much to the law and to the legal community.”

And there you have the dilemma. In real life, some of the most insightful judges, most entertaining entertainers, most canny dealmakers, most effective politicians, etc. have also, in the editor’s words, been “crude, grotesque, and hurtful.” If we categorically shun them and all their works, we as a society are also cutting ourselves off from whatever they have to offer.

I think most of us have wrestled with this. We certainly want to stand with victims of harassment and end the long aversion of the eyes and disbelief that has greeted them. But we also understand that less-than-admirable people often do admirable work of which we may want to avail ourselves. There has to be a compromise between these compelling but competing principles.

No Opportunities to Reoffend

My suggested first principle would be that we always have to protect the potential future victims. An abuser should not be put in a position to abuse again. And we can be pardoned for not trusting him. It is striking how little insight appears in most public apologies. Striking but not shocking; true compulsions excepted, the sorts of things the abuser has done generally could not have happened had there been much insight or empathy in the first place. People don’t normally change much, either. So, while we should insist on therapy, we shouldn’t count on the abuser ever to change inside – and, for purposes of whatever second chance may be contemplated, we should not withhold that chance waiting around for a convincing show of change. Instead, we should just view the abuser as someone we cannot trust not to misbehave, but whom we may be able to use anyway in ways that afford his misbehavior little scope. And such use would be strictly for our benefit, not his.

Safety demands that whether we are acting as employers, gatekeepers of public opinion like the editor who published Kozinski’s piece, or as consumers of culture, we should not facilitate putting any proven abuser in a position where he gets to order around subordinates, have a say in anyone’s future, or assault people. But, even after we observe that rule, we may still be able to and want to avail ourselves of the abuser’s work.

This compromise may be easier to endorse in principle than to put into practice. But it isn’t always going to be hopelessly hard to apply. Take a standup comedian who has engaged in abusive exhibitionism offstage (you may have heard of such a person). As audience members, we may not want to see the man perform again, but then again we may. And if we do, all we are doing when we go to see him is facilitating a solo performance. As an employer, that is, as the owner of the venue where the comedian might perform, one would have a graver responsibility to assure the well-being of women around the performer, including backstage. And as a gatekeeper, particularly one who might be influenced by the comedian’s badmouthing of colleagues who may have reacted negatively to his misbehavior, one would have a responsibility to be vigilant to detect and discount it when it happened.

In like fashion, a professor who had abused his power to grade students might be restricted to research and publication only. An executive who had assaulted his subordinates might be allowed to telecommute. And a retired judge who like Kozinski had been credibly accused of gross behavior toward women might be allowed to continue pontificating in print without access to law clerks or litigants.

Unless we are prepared to deny all abusers a second act – and I doubt that we as a society are prepared to do anything so categorical – we are going to have to think about what second acts may look like. These are some of my thoughts.

_______________

[1]. I remain skeptical of “good moral character” requirements. See my June 2014 column on the subject.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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A Work Song Becomes A Play: BERTA, BERTA at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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A Work Song Becomes A Play: BERTA, BERTA at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Jason Brown and Bianca LaVerne Jones

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

The problem of the prison industrial complex lies squarely at the heart of Angelica Chéri’s Berta, Berta, now in a world premiere performance at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV. The phrase prison industrial complex is a relative neologism. But the phenomenon it describes is old news: the widespread incarceration of mostly nonwhite Americans, mostly for victimless drug crimes, motivated to a great extent by the economic imperative to run prisons which employ correctional workers and to provide the state or its private contractors with the benefit of the cheap labor of inmates. The play takes place in Meridian, Mississippi in 1920, but it is just an earlier chapter in the same story.

At the opening, Leroy (Jason Brown) appears before us, having been released some months earlier from Mississippi’s Parchman prison, a notorious place which figures in the writings of Grisham and Faulkner and in many a blues song, and was operated in 1920 (and today), as a great prison farm. Though freed, Leroy stands there doomed, knowing he will have to return. As Leroy tells it: “Parchman? That’s where they take the Colored man to kill him from the inside out.” He was committed to the system not because he had committed any crime, but basically to meet the system’s needs. But his being, as he puts it, already killed inside upon his release assures, if only indirectly, that he will return. The exact mechanism triggering his liability to be returned is only fitfully made known to the audience and to the eponymous Berta (Bianca LaVerne Jones), Leroy’s love until he disappeared three years earlier (into Parchman, unbeknownst to her).

So, upon Leroy’s sudden reappearance, Berta and Leroy have much catching up – and fighting and making up and laughing and living – to do. Much has happened in both their lives since fate separated them, and they have a great deal they need to share. They have one night to do it, spent in her home, a humble shack (in a beautifully-realized set by Luciana Stecconi, augmented by John Ambrosone‘s lighting, which comes in from unexpected but telling places).

The title, the playwright tells us, is the title of a Parchman-specific field work song she encountered when it was sung in August Wilson‘s The Piano Lesson. Some anonymous prisoner in the vast flat Delta fields of Parchman may have had an actual Berta to sing of while he toiled. But time has washed away all specific information about the singer and his love. Like most folk music, it is sparing of details, though rich in suggestion, and of course all the more intriguing for that. The song does implicitly communicate as a simple fact, not even necessary to remark upon, that Parchman is forever; it acknowledges that Berta should not wait for the inmate-singer, but should marry “a railroad man.” But apparently to playwright Chéri, that fragment of data is not nearly enough. Consequently, she describes the play as her attempt at an origin story for the song. Since neither Leroy nor Berta sings or composes the song, the phrase “origin story” can only suggest that the song was written about them, though by whom or how is not suggested, even in the play.

Jones gives us a Berta a man would want to compose a song about, however. Her face, her eyes, the modulations of her voice, like the song itself, communicate so much more than the lines she delivers. “Berta is a voluptuous, stately Black woman with a striking countenance,” say the directions. Just so. And if Leroy is unfortunately fated to be a prisoner, Berta is fated to be free; Jones makes us believe it, makes us feel that there is something indomitable about her. Berta, one feels, must and will go on. We have little idea what her future will look like, but that much feels true.

Jason Bowen makes what can be made of Leroy, although at some points the character feels more like an artifact of the plot and the message than a coherent personality. One feels that Chéri envisions him as simply a victim, but Leroy has an unacknowledged degree of personal agency and culpability in the reasons he must return to Parchman. Bowen must therefore play Leroy as a more admirable character than his actions justify. This is tough for an actor, and tough for an audience.

Not unbearably tough, though. Audiences will come away moved, and a bit more (to use today’s phrase) woke, for having been through this experience.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Delicious Fun in THE CAKE at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Delicious Fun in THE CAKE at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Kelly Gibson, Erika Rolfsrud, and Monet

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

It would be pointless to discuss Bekah Brunstetter‘s delightful comedy The Cake without comparisons to Waitress, if only because the two shows start in almost the exact same way. In each, a woman whose creativity and self-expression has been poured into baking makes a statement that foreshadows the entire show, couched in baking terms. In Waitress, Jenna sings about what’s inside her pies: “My whole life is in here/ In this kitchen, baking / What a mess I’m making” – and of course we know that Jenna’s forthcoming struggle is to bring the mess of her life under control. In The Cake, Della forecasts a struggle of a different sort: to, in her parlance, “Follow. The. Directions.” To Della, recipes are sure guides to baking success: “If you’re not gonna give your time and your worship to directions that have been crafted by trial and error, you might as well do a darn cake from a box, which tastes like scotch tape dipped in Splenda if you’re asking.”

It does not take us long to learn what directions Della (Erika Rolfsrud), a 50s-ish cake shop owner, is going to be trying to follow. Through her bake shop’s front door come Macy and then Jen (Monet and Kelly Gibson), same-sex fiancees. Jen, we learn, is something of a niece to Della, and before Della twigs that Jen is planning to marry another woman, Della is overjoyed to be asked to make Jen’s wedding cake. After she gets that missing piece of information, however, she grows evasive. Della considers the Bible inerrant (she insists there were dinosaurs on Noah’s ark), and knows that her faith would frown. To her plumber husband Tim (Lee Sellars), there is no issue. “We know we can’t pick and choose the bible, honey. That’s when the edges start to blur. Fabric starts to fray.” But Della cannot make up her mind so easily.

It is plain that Della’s resolution of the issue will call for a gingerly reassessment of her faith and her life. Among other things, she can pick up the sexual current between Macy and Jen, and it contrasts with what goes on (or more accurately no longer does) between her and Tim in the bedroom. She takes some very funny steps to remedy that defect, topped by an even funnier riposte by Tim, and it appears that this problem will be solved. But the bigger problem, whether to bake the wedding cake or not, remains, and, realistically, it will not be solved wholesale by Della’s discarding of her allegiance to what Macy dismisses as “a book that’s thousands of years old.” If Della is to find a way, it will require more subtlety and compromise.

Along the way, Della’s travails are echoed and to some degree parodied by her appearances (real and imagined) as a competitor on the Great American Baking Show. At times, the comments of the host or judge (named in the script just THE VOICE) are the normal chivying of an MC on a contest program, but sometimes they become more inquisitorial, a kind of tribunal of Della’s conscience. “Well to guarantee your spot on next week’s show, just don’t make any mistakes ever!” Rolfsrud, being a natural comedienne, knocks these interchanges out of the park.

Della’s struggles are the main event, to be sure, but there is an undercard, the tensions between Jen and Macy. Jen has planned the wedding for her hometown (Winston, NC), and to the greatest extent possible she wants to affirm her Southern roots and her family ties with the ceremony, even though she knows that her late mother, whose wishes she is also trying to honor, would not have approved of a wedding with two brides. Macy, who is African American and from the north, and who does not even eat cake (to avoid gluten), has limits to her tolerance of homophobia even among those her intended loves. She even takes a step that has the potential to drive a deep wedge between Della and Jen.

This being a comedy, though, we know that somehow both faith and love (gay and straight) will triumph, that everyone will end up being affirmed, that gluten cannot be avoided forever, and that many folks in the audience will have lumps in their throats before the end.

I seem to find repeated reasons to compliment David Barber‘s sets, and this one is no exception – except that this time I applaud his willingness to quote. As I said above, this show cannot avoid comparison with Waitress, and this set has many elements, down to the store sign, the large window, and the color scheme, in common with Scott Pask‘s Waitress set. Sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of common sense.

Of the shows in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, this one is by far the most sheer fun.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Revisits a Trauma in Tears and Anger and Healing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL Revisits a Trauma in Tears and Anger and Healing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

Jessica Savage and Joey Parsons

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 12, 2018

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” T.S. Eliot wrote, in a phrase that could be the epigraph for Amy E. Witting’s The House on the Hill, the premiere of which is presented at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. After one’s sense of the world is altered and embittered by an experience that divides life into a before and an after, can the bitterness ever be surmounted, and if so, how? Those are the questions that power this forceful play.

Before and after what exactly? Audiences of modern drama are all too familiar with the overused device of the dark family secret that every character knows but which will not be spoken of directly until the play is well along. This play also relies on that device, but here it does not seem hackneyed. The characters, Alexandra and Frankie (Joey Parsonsand Jessica Savage) are shown tacitly agreeing to steer clear of the secret not merely because such circumspection is calculated to heighten audience interest; once we understand what it is, we can see that the characters know that if they address it, a long-buried grievance between them will have to be put on the table, and worse, they will need to rip off the emotional scabs that have formed over a terrible trauma.

The two women were cousins and contemporaries, and in their adolescent lives the best of friends. Through their remembered younger selves (Sam Morales as Alexandra’s younger self Alex and Ruby Rakos as Young Frankie), we can witness part of the heyday of their relationship. Then, because of the day that marked a continental divide in their lives, they were separated, and have not been in touch for seventeen years until now, when Frankie comes to Alexandra’s house to pay an unscheduled call. And it is far from clear that if the thing that has gone on diminishing their lives and has separated them for seventeen years is mentioned, they will be able to resume any kind of relationship.

But of course, people’s needs being what they are, and this being the theater to boot, they will have to bring it up. And when they do, all hell predictably breaks loose. The unresolved anger, the shock and terror, the longing for forgiveness and reconciliation all explode in a complicated, tearful burst of emotion.

The tears seem to be at the discretion of the director, Ed Herendeen, since there are no stage directions in the script specifically commanding them. And while it is hard to read the play without sensing that tears would be appropriate, the extent and the power of them in this production of the play are amazing. Let me hasten to add that there is nothing maudlin or clichéd happening here, no reconciliation, for instance, based upon some kind of merger of the characters’ weeping. There is no definite reconciliation at all, in fact, though there appears to be some degree of forgiveness, and a definite change in the burdens each character will bear going forward. Instead, we observe two highly damaged people trying to become more whole, in realistic and hence realistically limited ways.

Which is not to say that there is not some welcome artifice in the piece. The way the earlier versions of Alexandra and Frankie are deployed is cunning. When the adult version of one of them leaves the room (e.g., to get food or visit the bathroom), the younger enters, and the reenactment of key scenes from the earlier time occurs with one adult in her memory replaying those pivotal moments in tandem with the juvenile version of the other. We see, in effect, each woman’s memories of the other as a teenager.

And the high point of Alexandra’s long speech letting loose with all her pain and fury occurs, by what is surely no coincidence, with Alexandria standing in a dominant position halfway up a very long staircase (pictured above).

What the floor at the top of that staircase is like, and what it means, is also revealed in due course. All I shall say here is that the eponymous house is a character in its own right, and the offstage second floor is an interesting and somewhat poetic touch.

I cannot end without remarking on the sheer power of the two actors who play the leads. I have already commented in a review of another show about the range that Joey Parsons demonstrates between this role, which necessarily evokes a nearly volcanic release of emotion, and the very buttoned-down and circumspect character she is called upon to play in another show at the Festival. And Jessica Savage was astonishing; in one day I witnessed her, in a different play, enacting with graphic realism the fate of a gunshot victim, and then going through the emotional wringer of Frankie’s part in this one. These were marvelous histrionics, using the word not as a putdown but in its root sense: the actorly presentation of emotion.

So, to summarize: Insightful, powerful script, and great acting. Not to be missed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Post-Apocalyptic, Classically-Imagined Tragedy: THIRST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Post-Apocalyptic, Classically-Imagined Tragedy: THIRST at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 10, 2018

C.A. Johnson’s Thirst, receiving its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, feels a lot like a Shakespearean tragedy. In a Southern county, Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has restored order after a national war over natural resources, and because of his command of the communal well, he is effectively the local warlord. It is good to be king, and Terrance’s community is on the verge of celebrating the first anniversary of the peace Terrance has restored. But there is a thing he can’t let go of, like Lear, like Othello, like Richard II. And if you’re a tragic hero and you can’t let go when you ought to, then bad things will happen to you and those you are close to.

In this case, what Terrance cannot let go of is his claim on Samira (Monet), his wife who left him for another. That the other, Greta (Jessica Savage) is female and white, while Samira and Terrance are black, is not of great significance to Terrance; that Greta stands in the way of an imagined reunion with Samira is the only thing that matters. Terrance should know that his pursuit is hopeless. His war minister Coolie (Justin Withers) tells him: “[S]he was gone Terrance. Even before she run off into them woods and leave you, she was long gone. Wasn’t nothin’ for you in her eyes.” But Terrance clings to the insane notion that the mere status of husband endows him with a right to her, even when there is no longer a legal system either to establish or enforce any rights, and when the trauma of losing their children in the apocalyptic times has fully severed Samira’s bond with him.

Nor is Terrance the only one who can’t let go. Samira, who has begun a new family at a clearing in the woods with Greta and an orphan named Kalil (Jalon Christian), clings to her notion that she can completely avoid dealing with Terrance, even though he controls the water and is the most powerful person in the vicinity, and is seeking a confrontation with her.

Terrance and Samira’s obsessions, and their separate failures to acknowledge realities and balance their obsessions with other considerations, will cost everyone, not just themselves, dearly. And though most of the play is in African American dialect, and the story numbers among its concerns contemporary things like race relations and same-sex relationships, the dynamics are pure classical tragedy. And the classics are the classics for good reason; they have discovered much of what works in the theater. Thirst‘s power largely derives from an underlying classical structure.

At the same time, Johnson has appropriated some potency from a more modern mythos, that of social breakdown. After a century or more of imaginings of a world where law and order have broken down, of Sarah Kane‘s Blasted and Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined and the Mad Max movies and A Clockwork Orange, not to mention the real-life example of failed states like Yugoslavia and Somalia, we expect that kind of breakdown to be accompanied by nearly meaningless violence. There is a good deal of that here as well, and it is the more horrifying because it and its consequences are graphically depicted (kudos to fight director Aaron Anderson and assistant Joe Myers), and because Terrance, the one who has the potential to continue protecting his entire community from it, is the one who brings it back in again with him.

Dramatic works about social breakdown generally incorporate a story about the efforts of individuals to restore or at least to hang onto the vestiges of civility and order, even if it is only on the family level, motivated by a yearning somehow to return to the way things were before. We see that here as well, including the efforts of Terrance’s brother Bankhead (William Oliver Watkins), an unexpected protector of human decency (pictured above with Jessica Savage).

There is much more to say about all of this, but it would require too many spoilers. I would merely observe that the resolution is credible and disheartening, but not entirely without hope. Audiences will find Thirst, like its classical predecessors, harrowing but also cathartic.

Naturally, a work of the ambition of this one will not come off properly without first-rate acting and direction (a hat-tip to Adrienne Campbell-Holt), and great technical support. The Festival, as is its wont, supplies all these things.

If you are not doing all of this year’s Festival, this is surely one of the shows not to miss.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Great Recall During the Great Terror: MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Great Recall During the Great Terror: MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN at Contemporary American Theater Festival

Joey Parsons and David McElwee

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 9, 2018

The reported genesis of D.W. Gregory’s Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, now at the Contemporary American Theater Festival on the first stop of a rolling world premiere, was serendipity. The playwright came upon a Russian neurologist’s report of a savant who possessed a limitless memory and was affected by a tendency toward one form of synesthesia, the perception of sounds in a visual way. Of additional note was that the case report concerned and was written during the era of Stalin’s murderous purges, when former leaders, now newly-minted enemies of the state, were not only killed but eliminated from the historical record. The savant, of course, would have remembered things and persons the State was trying to force people to forget. The play emerged from this notion.

In the play, the savant Alexei (David McElwee) is also afflicted with an inability to dissemble, a dangerous thing in a totalitarian state, where the power to lie is an important survival tool, especially if one is burdened by a recollection of the actions and words of erased enemies of the state. Alexei has sought help for his complex of problems with Natalya (Joey Parsons), a psychologist he enlists in pursuit of forgetfulness. (Parsons and McElwee are pictured together above.)

As it happens, Alexei is not the only character with inconvenient memories. A different sort of unwelcome obsessive memory afflicts Kreplev (Lee Sellars), a state functionary apparently in charge of politically vetting Natalya’s report on Alexei’s case before it may be published, meaning that Kreplev has the power to destroy Natalya’s career simply by denying approval.

Natalya ends up helping both of them and herself. It emerges that Kreplev’s painful memory is real although his relationship to the report has levels that are not immediately apparent. Kreplev’s memory, we learn, cannot be cured, though he may be educated as to come to terms with it. Alexei’s memory, on the other hand, may be an entirely different matter. In the world of the play, forgetfulness may be entirely possible.

As the two stories unfold, we meet Alexei’s brother (Lee Sellars again), his mother (Erika Rolfsrud), and a nosy neighbor, Madame Devidova (Joey Parsons again), whose intrusive curiosity may be as dangerous as memory in a totalitarian world where secrets are another survival skill. We also hear lyrical descriptions of synesthesia that have an almost poetic impact.

After seeing the show, I found myself engaged with numerous other attendees in a debate over whether this mix of memory issues cohered dramatically with the tale of state erasure of history. Few of us hewed consistently to any one position on this; it is difficult for some reason to say. If the two themes do synergize, then one would expect them to add up to some kind of whole greater than the sum of the parts. And obviously, the mere perception that erasures of nonpersons are terrible Orwellian things is not that greater sum, because it’s something everyone already perceives, not just intellectually but viscerally. But there may be something else; the themes feel as if they come together, though we couldn’t quite say how. We know this much at least: the Orwellian background serves as a plot device to motivate each of the two interrelated stories, akin to the Paris Commune uprising serving as a mainspring for plot developments in Les Miz. And everyone loved the synesthesia.

As is always the case at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, the production values are superb. The set, by the reliable David M. Barber, rose to the unusual challenge of taking a large space, the stage at the Frank Center on the Shepherd University campus, accommodating a large feature (a bank of windows through which back projections like Stalin’s Big Brother countenance or Soviet apartment block prospects could be seen), and still making the rooms in front of it feel small. Part of the trick was to turn the areas abutting those windows into openwork changing spaces, important since three of the four performers had multiple roles, requiring changes of costume, often followed by speedy returns to the field. In other words, the set made a virtue of necessity.

Joey Parsons and Lee Sellars by now also qualify as reliable. They have not only memorably acquitted themselves in previous seasons at CATF that I’ve witnessed, but each is holding down demanding roles in other plays in this season’s Festival. I think it would be overstating the case to say that their current parts in Memoirs posed the same level of challenge as these other roles, but I can say these parts demanded and showcased these performers’ range. Parsons, whose role in another play calls for her to be living a life of quiet desperation that degenerates into explosively tearful noisy desperation, gives us here a Natalya trained by life in a repressive world to be always controlled, and to give little or nothing away. And of course Parsons also does fine with the stock type, the babushka prying into neighbors’ business, apparently a fixture in every apartment house in the old Soviet Union. Similarly, Sellars, who in another current show portrays an agreeable working man with a marriage in slight disrepair, here provides a bureaucrat exuding a silky and sometimes brusque menace mixed with a slight note of vulnerability.

Festival newcomer McElwee probably faced the greatest demands, reconciling character traits not often found in nature, alone or together, and showing, along with those, a human face. His bewilderment and desperation were at times funny and at times moving. But because of the uniqueness of the character, you cannot call them topical.

The playwright openly announces her hopes for the topicality of the play in notes at the head of the script. The play, she writes, “forces the audience to consider the fragility of democracy itself in an era when facts are fungible and history is whatever you say it is.” I don’t think it actually does that. The constantly revised lies we hear today, for instance, over whether someone was fired for one reason or another, or whether a payoff to someone was known to someone else, do not rise to the level of affront to good governance that occurs when official government and media records are revised to give the appearance that former government officials never existed or spoke. The former lies may be on the same continuum as the latter, but the latter ones were parts of campaigns in which millions were slain. The current body count is not comparable. And numbers matter. Lethality matters.

If you come to this show, then, do not expect to participate in a truly topical think piece. You will witness instead a pair of entwined tales about a rare mental abnormality and a somewhat overexposed aspect of totalitarianism. It is the telling of the tales, the acting and the scenery and, oh, yes, the synesthesia, by which Memoirs will work for you, or not.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Resurrecting Teflon Ron: A LATE MORNING (IN AMERICA) at Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Resurrecting Teflon Ron: A LATE MORNING (IN AMERICA) at Contemporary American Theater Festival

John Keabler

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 9, 2018

It is a reasonable guess that most theater-goers who remember Ronald Reagan or have educated themselves about him will think of him as one who did great harm. Under Reagan, the Republican Party accelerated a drift toward racism and reflexive hostility toward all uses of the government to foster the common good; the Iran-Contra deal took place, a marquee event in a program of sponsoring of right-wing militarism and attacks on indigenous populations in Central America; steps were taken toward breaking unions, marking a decisive turning of national policy against the middle class; public health policy took a backseat to homophobia as the AIDS epidemic was ignored for as long as possible; and trickle-down economics, a destructive voodoo that never has worked but has remained Republican orthodoxy, was embraced. A show about Reagan that does not explore how his personality gave rise to such destructiveness is not going to satisfy any well-informed theatergoer.

Yet such a show is unfortunately what playwright Michael Weller has given us in A Late Morning (in America) With Ronald Reagan, receiving its world premiere at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. An interview with Weller published in the CATF website makes clear Weller himself understands the dramatic urgency of the question.

Weller nonetheless re-creates Reagan’s well-known bland agreeableness without doing much to reconcile it with the dissonant malignance of Reagan’s political program. Through his careers in radio, Hollywood, television, and politics, Reagan and his backers fashioned a persona for him, a kind of Teflon shield down which all criticisms were intended to slide. The question that persona often provoked then, and provokes to this day, was and is the extent to which there was any true personality under that Teflon front. Weller seizes on one of Reagan’s most famous movie lines (“Where’s the rest of me?”) to encapsulate it. And it would be the right question, were Weller to ask it more fully – were Weller to ask where was the part of Reagan that allowed him to live with the sheer meanness and regressiveness of his politics.

Nothing prevented Weller from doing so. The show is structured as an end-of-career interview with Reagan. Interviews are by their very nature confrontations in which the interviewee is put to some kind of test. But there is no test here. Whether the interview (with an unseen interlocutor) is actually taking place or is merely an incident of a perimortal fugue state or a figment of Reagan’s disintegrating imagination as he loses his mind to Alzheimer’s or a combination of them remains open and not very important. But to the extent there is in the world of the play an actual interview, it is telling that the interviewer comes from the “Wyoming Horse Breeder’s Monthly,” a fictive publication whose very name amounts to an assurance that Reagan will not be challenged much by its emissary. The non-political focus of a narrowly-focused trade publication would render journalistic curiosity about the bigger and more important questions, particularly those going to the core of a subject’s personality and politics, most unlikely. Weller could have confronted Reagan with a (real or imaginary) true political journalist. As a result of his failure to do so, there is almost no room left for the important questions to intrude.

About the only place the Reagan character is asked about his actual policies, it concerns the one area in which audiences may be inclined to give Reagan credit: standing firm against the Soviet Union and wringing out of that country as it drifted toward dissolution a nuclear disarmament treaty and the end of the Berlin Wall. Whether these really were accomplishments or merely inevitable events that happened on Reagan’s watch I leave to others to decide. My point here, however, is that this is almost the only point in the play where Reagan addresses policy and connects it directly with himself. In other words, the character gets a pass on everything tough, and talks substantively only about the creditable parts.

Reagan is even allowed to let slide the tough parts of his personal life. Here he is on his first wife: “Yes, I married Jane Wyman in 1940. She was a contract player at Warners. Two wonderful children resulted from that union; Maureen and Michael. Jane Wyman was an ambitious Hollywood actress who put career ahead of family. We divorced in 1948. What more is there to say?” Obviously, this is a lie, because there is always plenty to say about any union that resulted in two children.

So, yes, the production surely gives us an afternoon with Ronald Reagan, as charmingly unilluminating as that might be. And the audience enjoyed it; tellingly, though the biggest laughs came when Reagan was making disparaging jokes about the Berlin Wall, calculated to evoke the Trump would-be wall. But audience enjoyment should not mask the lost opportunity; in faithfully depicting a person who provided so few insights into his character, A Late Morning disables itself from providing any insights of its own. That there was no “there there” (as Gertrude Stein put it) is, one supposes, an insight in its own right, but only a small one.

This is not perhaps the most animatronic Reagan possible. This production was originally supposed to star Tim Matheson, who has played Reagan in 2016’s Killing Reagan, and who looks a lot like the mature man who served as president. For some unspecified reason, Matheson dropped out of the project, and the much younger-looking John Keabler was swapped in. This was in keeping with the directions in the script: “The actor can be any age, and needn’t resemble the ‘real’ Ronald Reagan.” I’m not sure why Weller would put such a self-defeating direction in the script, but there it is. Still, Keabler, with his lanky body, does manage to remind us of the way the historical Reagan moved. When I saw the show at the opening official performance, Keabler still seemed a little tentative in the role, rushing some of his line readings and apparently stumbling on certain lines. But one assumes those problems will go away.

I cannot end without mentioning Luciana Stecconi’s masterly set design depicted above: a series of filmy screens that strongly evoke the veiled (even from himself) nature of Reagan’s character, and also accommodate projections.

I hope Weller will continue to work with this script, and will go ahead and try piercing Reagan’s veil.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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