The City of Conversation, by Anthony Giardina. Directed by Eric Peterson. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Nan Mullenneaux, Brandon Rubin, Christopher Restino; photo: provided
"Is bi-partisanship returning to the Capitol?"
Nan Mullenneaux; photo: provided
For three and a half months in the spring/summer of 2014 Lincoln Center Theatre presented Anthony Giardina's play, "The City of Conversation," and now it is Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont's turn. A multi-star cast, headed by Jan Maxwell and Beth Dixon as Hester Ferris and Jean Swift, sisters who are friends, has been replaced locally by Nan Mullenneaux and Christine Decker and a better pair of actress could not have been found for these roles. This play is a family drama covering thirty years in the lives of the people involved moving from 1979 through 1987 and on to 2009. It tells the intimate story of a mother and son who discover different and separate loyalties in politics and in their personal lives and it tears apart the family. A talky drama with lots of ideals and ideologies to discuss, it is ultimately a moving and tearful story guaranteed to grab you by the throat and make you lose your breath.
In fact, it is the final scene of the play that brings it all home. It is here that the story of these people comes together and proves itself worthy of attention. Until then, unless you are better versed in American politics than I am, it is a mortally clinical look at how differences in political leaning can bring down a family unit considered to be inviolate.
Not to be the only show in the region this week to show us how politics can hurt, maim and nearly destroy a good person (Williamstown Theatre Festival is playing Wendy Wasserstein's "An American Daughter") it is the one getting closest to the heart of the matter; three people are concerned who have allowed their political beliefs to supercede their human smarts.
Political activist with a Democratic Party leaning Hester Ferris is visited by her son Colin and his girlfriend Anna Fitzgerald home from the London School of Economics in 1979. Jimmy Carter is President and Ted Kennedy has announced for the job. The film "Apocalypse Now" has just been released and its heavy politics are upsetting a lot of people. Senator Robert Byrd and the President are clashing over federal judge appointments who are exclusively country club whites. Colin has arrived early to disrupt a political dinner his mother is hosting over Republican views held by Anna which clash directly with Hester's own beliefs and those of her sister Jean. Not the happy reunion Hester has hoped for, it is the beginning of an uneasy relationship which will have very important consequences.
Nan Mullenneaux plays Hester with a flawed self-confidence that continually shows us the inner self of Hester, something not necessarily intended by the author. As a result of this physical essence we know more about her than the play's lines are telling us. It is an ingenious way in which to present this very complex character who speaks often and sometimes harshly but holds a vulnerable emotional self as intact and controlled as possible. Mullenneaux is expert at this dichotomy and it isn't until the final scene that we really see through the shell into the human being who is more desperately lonely than she would normally allow. It is a lovely performance, nuanced and graceful.
As her son Colin and as his son Ethan at age 27, Christopher Restino has to play three very different types of men in the course of the play. He is the loving if resentful twenty-something who teases and taunts at the same time. He is the upwardly mobile legal mind who works in direct opposition to all that his mother stands for in 1989, squabbling over the appointment by Ronald Reagan of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. He is the teacher and companion from the South Bronx, the grandson who hasn't seen Hester in twenty-one years, a soft, sweet, frightened man who wants to give her the love she has missed. He plays all three variations on the family heir with honesty and simplicity and he is very touching in the final scene, set at Obama's inauguration in 2009.
Ethan, age six, is nicely played by Tyler Schade providing a youthful bump to the show. Jody June Schade plays Carolyn Mallonee, a political wife with extreme confidence in her husband's abilities. She is so officially confident she gives us some of the few laughs in this show. Her husband, a major political manipulator, is played with his usual flair by Richard Howe. Bill Tatum plays Hester's more-or-less live-in lover, Chandler Harris, a role originated by Kevin O'Rourke. Tatum has loads of charm and he uses that quality to excellent advantage. Christine Decker turns in another perfect performance allowing her character to age appropriately without much of a physical transition to aid her.
Colin's wife, Anna, is played with a dark, blonde vengeance by Meredith Meurs. She begins, in Act One, as a saucy, outspoken midwestern college student, but by Act Two she is a spiteful, hate encrusted mongrel dog out for all she can get at any cost. Meurs plays the role for all the horror she can muster and still look presentable. Her threats against her mother-in-law are among the most horrid in recent theater and her handy manner with her easy-to-convince angry husband is truly frightening at times. Meurs plays all of this in the nicest way possible which makes it all so much more damaging. This is a role for which Meurs will be remembered.
On the flip side of this is Donald Logan, played by Brandon Rubin. If there is a nicer character in a political play, I cannot imagine who it might be. Rubin uses gestures, touches, soothing tones and an easy, acceptable manner to be as pleasant and ingratiating as possible and, therefore, Donald is the one character who is clearly not pursuing a personal agenda. This is a top-of-the-line performance.
Eric Peterson's direction is solid, crisp and involving. He uses his wide stage space, beautifully designed by Carl Sprague, to great advantage. Even in those moments when emotions are high, he never crowds his actors or loses their physical perspectives on one another. Ursula McCarty's costumes are appropriate to the people and the times and Cory Wheat's lighting is effective.
This is a new play for me, but one I am so glad to have seen, especially in such a fine production. It isn't a perfect play: too talky for that; not emotionally placid, but not high and toxic either. What it is at the end of the day is a compelling examination of our times and how things have played out politically in the past, and all this at a time when we are playing out a new, yet familiar, scenario in the politcal arena. A well-chosen, well-intended, and well produced piece of theater that should please everyone in some way.
Meredith Meurs; photo: provided
The City of Conversation plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Bennington, VT through August 21. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-447-0564 or go on line at www.oldcastletheatre.org.