Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
State of the Union
Also see Susan's review of 9 Parts of Desire
In this very politically charged season, Ford's Theatre in Washington has decided to revive State of the Union, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The play is solidly written and still diverting, if old-fashioned, and it still makes some good points about the importance of integrity in government.
The reform-minded plays of the post-World War II era Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday is another comic example, Arthur Miller's All My Sons more serious have in common a sense of idealism, that if people work together they can overcome obstacles and build a better society. Sad to say, that open-hearted optimism looks a little naïve these days.
Lindsay and Crouse were writing in 1946 about the upcoming presidential election, as the Republicans began their search to challenge Harry Truman in 1948. Power broker James Conover (Sam Tsoutsouvas) and strong-willed newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Martha Hackett) think they have the perfect candidate: Grant Matthews (Jim Abele), a prominent industrialist with no prior involvement in politics. The conflict, and the comedy, stems from the question of just whose judgment Grant is going to trust, theirs or his own.
In simple dramatic terms, Grant's moral decision is set up as a choice between two women: his estranged wife Mary (Ellen Karas), a sharp-tongued woman who believes in saying what one believes and not equivocating, and the politically savvy Kay. To their credit, all three performers manage to keep their characters from becoming mere mouthpieces for their philosophies.
Lindsay and Crouse also use humorous exaggeration to portray the necessary horse-trading that comes with courting the voters. So labor leader William Hardy (Hugh Nees) is a pugnacious little man overdressed in white tie; Judge Alexander (Floyd King), a relic of the old south, and his fluttery wife (Nancy Robinette) liven up a dinner party in their distinct ways; and Spike McManus (Andrew Polk) is the 1940s image of the newspaperman as a working-class fellow doing the best he can.
Director Kyle Donnelly has the advantage here of working with a large and very talented cast. Even the minor roles are played by noteworthy actors: Naomi Jacobson manages to make a stereotyped Irish maid's character fascinating to watch, and King and Robinette, singularly and together, are never less than a pleasure. (All three are past winners of at least one Helen Hayes Award, as is Karas.)
The scenic design by Kate Edmunds is perhaps too obvious: it operates within a false proscenium decorated with campaign ads dating back to the time of Lincoln. Hidden in the proscenium are several small television screens that bridge scene changes with a brief history of campaign ads, from Eisenhower and Kennedy up to Clinton and Bush. The audience can see the parallels without having them served up so blatantly.