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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
An American Daughter
Wasserstein was originally inspired by the Zoe Baird "Nannygate" scandal which killed her chances as the nominee for attorney general in Bill Clinton's administration. In our current media frenzy the talking-head phenomenon has proliferated as desperate journalists search for new angles to bolster ratings and edge out competitors. The candidates' lives, gestures, words, silences, hair styles, clothing, families and friends are studied for anything that might provide exclusive expositions — true or not.
Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) is a recognizable over-achieving, trying-to-have-it-all nominee for U.S Surgeon General. Daughter of a conservative Republican senator, descendant of U.S. Grant, well-educated, privileged and dedicated to women's health issues, she is so focused on her goals that she's shocked to find herself coming under scrutiny for a ridiculous oversight —; one, that, as pointed out by Wasserstein, that would have made no male counterpart culpable. Wasserstein's Dent Hughes becomes the victim of the double standard which over-qualified women have had to combat time and again, judged not by superb credentials or unique experience, but by demeaning and petty details.
When Lyssa makes another mistake during a TV interview by describing her late mother as an "Ordinary Indiana housewife," all hell breaks loose as the media-vultures sensing blood, move in for the kill. The backlash builds, egged on by the twenty-four hour media loop and incessant commentary. Lyssa is assailed for being "condescending," elitist, even a victim of her so-called feminist education. Her off-stage twin boys add internet ratings and chat room commentary into the mix.
Everybody has an opinion. Davis's Lyssa Dent Hughes remains compliant and stoic —until pushed to the breaking point when she shows that she is an American Daughter of the highest caliber.
Lyssa's callow husband Walter (Stephen Kunken) seems to be suffering from a mid-life slump. He is an aging liberal sociologist who reminds his visitors often of his once "brilliant" book. Though he enjoys his cushy life thanks to Lyssa, his own neediness distracts from her upcoming achievement. Walter allows himself to fall prey to Quincy Quince (Kerry Bishe) a seductive and ambitious former student who senses a chance to leap to celebrity by capitalizing on Lyssa's nomination battle. Author of The Prisoner of Gender, she insinuates herself into the family with aspirations of greater achievement through a delicious blend of pseudo-sincerity, calculated sexuality and glib psycho-babble.
Roe Hartrampf's Morrow McCarthy is the archly gay conservative "family friend" who takes advantage of Lyssa and Walter's hospitality. He "accidentally" blabs details to the media and then feigns shock that he has in any way offended or damaged their friendship as he utilizes the ensuing media circus to his own advantage.
The charming, unflappable Timber Tucker (Jason Danieley) is the consummate personable and helpful interviewer, until he isn't. Under the guise of a cozy family brunch, he discovers and uses a minor detail from Lyssa's almost exemplary past to stir up scandal and boost his own ratings.
Saidah Arrika Ekulona is Lyssa's dearest friend Dr. Judith B. Kaufman. As a black Jewish oncologist she recognizes the limit of human dreams and is the most realistic and loyal of friends. When she says, "I can't make life and I can't stop death," she voices the frustration of humanity as she shakes a fist at God, all the while begging forgiveness during the Jewish festival of regret. Ekulona's Judith is the heart and soul of the story. She is the testimonial to enduring female friendship which will remain when everyone else has moved on to ever-greener fields.
Lyssa's father (Richard Poe) as the senator is a cool, smooth politician and aloof father. Deborah Rush, his fourth wife "Chubby" Hughes, is a pragmatist. They both provide some of the more humorous and bizarre lines in the play. Though superficial in their advice and demeanor, they are believable as political survivors in a very cynical world. Their PR operative Billy Robbins (Will Pullen) is a calculating spin doctor who positions Lyssa with the chilling, "Sometimes it's just a question of knowing what the people want and giving it to them and then getting on with it."
If these characters seem archetypical, they are. At two hours and forty-five minutes with intermission the play has a lot of ground to cover. Wasserstein has almost too much to say in this bitingly funny cultural assessment. Thank God she did say it as her premature death in 2006 at the age of 55 silenced her voice and deprived us of her Pulitzer Prize-winning observations.
The original production in 1997 (Curtainup editor Elyse Sommer's review ) was criticized for a certain lack of depth. However, time has elevated it to a more prescient position; as someone in the play says, "It's amazing how quickly opinions change."
Derek McLane's scenic design of a tasteful Georgetown living room shimmers with Washingtonian ascendancy. Ben Stanton's facile lighting moves us easily from the sunny and serene home to newsroom locations and Jessica Pabst's costumes add a contemporary reading to the 1997 time period.
This knowing and fast-moving production directed by Evan Cabnet proves that Wendy Wasserstein was on target with her amusing observations about the self-serving media and an easily swayed public who often turn on those who have honest and sincere political agendas. The humor, anger and pain surge into an ending which has become a familiar nightly news segment. What would Wendy have divined in the ten years of her absence prior to our current political maelstrom? An American Daughter is a chance to hear her unique critical dissection once more.
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An American Daughter by Wendy Wasserstein
Directed by Evan Cabnet
Cast: Diane Davis (Lyssa Dent Hughes) Quincy Quince (Kerry Bishe) Saidah Arrika Ekulona (Judith B. Kaufman) Stephen Kunken (Walter Abrahmson) Roe Hartrampf (Morrow McCarthy) Jason Danieley (Timber Tucker) Richard Poe (Senator Allen Hughes) Deborah Rush (Charlotte "Chubby" Hughes) Will Pullen (Billy Robbins) Time Zone Crew: Carson Meyer, Grayson Samuels, Jack Rodgers, Dwayne Walker-Dixon, Michelle Davis, Itzel Ayala
Scenic Designer: Derek McLane
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Costume Designer: Jessica Pabst
Sound Designer: Ben Truppin-Brown
Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
From 8/3/16; opening 8/7/16; closing 8/21/16.
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at August 7 performance
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