Democracy the play is a lot like democracy itself – messy, with many voices speaking conflicting ideas; and ultimately vital and engaging. Michael Frayn's award-winning play gets a striking reading from Park Square Theatre, who has assembled a cast of Twin Cities all-stars for this production.
Democracy follows the rise and fall of German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who rose to power at the end of the 1960s, helped to bridge the gap between West and East Germany, and was eventually brought down by the presence of Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy who had worked his way into the upper echelon of Brandt's government.
It's a terrific concept, though one that many Americans probably don't remember all that much. That bit of distance turns what could have been a specific show about a specific time (imagine how a show about the fall of Richard Nixon would play) into a larger meditation on the nature of government, loyalty and friendship.
At the core of the show is the relationship between Brandt, a Berliner who had literally abandoned his earlier self in his political journey, and the East German Guillaume, who continued to work for the for his former home after emigrating to the West. Through the years, Guillaume rises from a simple party member thrust into a small role in the government to being Brandt's right-hand man. It's a delicate relationship well played by J.C. Cutler as Guillaume and Stephen Pelinski as Brandt.
Guillaume has another master – his East German contact Arno, played with smooth menace by Jon Andrew Hegge. His relationship is just as complex here, as Guillaume's divided loyalties continue to play on his mind. The conflicts continue within the cabinet – be it with the ancient party general Herbert Wehner (played with vigor and bile by the always impressive Richard Ooms); chancellor-in-waiting Helmut Schmidt (a smooth to the point of slimy Stephen D'Ambrose); and even with his strongest supporter, Chief of Staff Horst Ehmke (Nathaniel Fuller in a typically well-thought-out role).
While the show sometimes seems destined to collapse under the weight of all the conflicts, director Jon Cranney keeps a firm hand and never lets the emphasis waver from the play's core. In the production's best scene, Guillaume and Brandt share a conversation about loyalty and politics under the Norwegian starlight. The stage is lit only by candlelight, seemingly embracing the darkness that surrounds the characters. It's a stunning set piece to a largely successful show – one that helps move Park Square up another notch in the Twin Cities theater community.
Democracy runs through February 11 at the Park Square Theatre, 408 St. Peter St., St Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-291-7005 or visit www.parksquaretheatre.org.
Director Joe Dowling plays with these memories through the largely engaging new production on the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. The lively production is aided greatly by the talents of the five actors, who play with a mostly light touch as they travel through Williams' recollections of life in St. Louis during the 1930s.
Those memories come clear from the opening scene, when not one, but two Tom Wingfields are revealed; an older one (Bill McCallum) who reflects on his past, and a younger one (Randy Harrison, best known for his work on Showtime's Queer as Folk) share the character. As McCallum thinks back to the mistakes, we watch Harrison make them, unaware of the events he sets in motion.
Veteran performer Harriet Harris (Tony Award winner for Thoroughly Modern Millie and well-known for her roles on Frasier and Desperate Housewives) fully inhabits Mother Amanda. She too lives on her memories – of growing up in the South, of being showered with "gentleman callers," of living a better life than the one in a small apartment in St. Louis.
The first act focuses on the conflict between mother Amanda and son Tom, clearly showing his desire to escape the dull walls of the apartment, his job at the warehouse, and his life. Like most people in their 20s, the last thing Tom wants to do is listen to his mother – even if her advice, on occasion, is good.
The second act turns to Laura (played with a beautiful fragility and unexpected warmth by Tracey Maloney) and her own gentleman caller (Jonas Goslow), who seems as awkward as the brown shoes he wears with his blue suit, but reveals a strong character that could draw Laura out of her shell – if his own life wasn't already on a different trajectory.
The performances are fairly strong throughout, though Harrison's performance is at times too overheated for the action (and his accent never really settles in one place). Harris is terrific as the overbearing mother, while the chemistry between Maloney and Goslow makes for exhilarating theater in the second act.
Add to this a striking set by Richard Hoover and Dowling's well-crafted direction, which accents Williams' humor as much as the show's underlying tragedy, and you have a production that seems shorter than the nearly 3 hours of its running time.
The Glass Menagerie runs through March 25 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd St., Minneapolis. For information and tickets, call 612-377-2224 or visit www.guthrietheater.org.