BENNINGTON, VT. — It is an undisputable fact that bipartisanship, statesmanship and the art of getting the needed work done for the whole vacated American politics long ago. Special interest groups, lobbyists and cold hard cash, now openly and unashamedly, have stalled this country’s progress into a morass of finger pointing and unending rhetoric. The word “compromise” is now an expletive. To suggest a compromise to a roadblock is now seen as admitting defeat. No one is simply “American” anymore. Now we are being grouped as either “blue” or “red” Americans. When did politics become hostilely divisive?
‘The City of Conversation’
WHERE: Oldcastle Theater Company, Bennington, Vt.
WHEN: Through August 21, 2016
HOW MUCH: $37
MORE INFO: 802-447-0564
This disconnect and discord is difficult enough between fellow countrymen and friends, but what happens when political idealism roils inside one family? Can a “blue” mom love a “red” child? Playwright Anthony Giardina explores this brilliantly in his play “The City of Conversation,” now receiving its regional premiere at Oldcastle Theater Company in Bennington, Vermont.
Well-polished doyenne of Washington, D.C. society Hester Ferris (played here by Nan Mullenneaux) facilitates conversations between the powerful and influential from both sides of the aisle, from her well-appointed Georgetown living room. Greasing the wheels of government with civility and passionate debate, she moves her liberal ideals forward through compromise, tenacity and ample tumblers of scotch.
The play opens in the fall of 1979 as Ted Kennedy prepares to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. It is a simple supper. Hester has invited a Republican senator and his wife, determined to obtain support on Kennedy’s bill that would prohibit Supreme Court nominees from holding memberships in segregated country clubs.
What complicates the proceedings is the unexpected arrival of Hester’s 23-year-old son Colin (Christopher Restino) and his new fiancée, Anna (Meredith Meurs). Not expected by Hester until tomorrow evening, they are invited to stay and enjoy the evening’s event. Anna, an ardent follower of the new Reagan conservatism, has not arrived on this particular evening by accident. She has a mission. Looking to learn Hester’s craft, Anna is here as “Eve” arrived to worship “Margo.” Hester states when she discovers the truth, “I think I saw this film.” And Hester soon discovers that her son is part of the new conservative movement as well.
Eight years pass and Colin, firmly still committed to his conservatism, and his mother now clash over the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination. His mother promises Colin that she will not work to quash the appointment
and the daughter-in-law discovers the truth, forcing a confrontation with devastating consequences.
Giardina’s play has a few blemishes. The arguments and passions raised from the right are not well-matched to those coming from the left, making it a slightly unbalanced evening.
Oldcastle’s production, under Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson, is a mixed bag. Often the evening snaps and sizzles. The cast is well adept at finding the humor but the emotional moments — reflective and reactive — are noticeably muted. Mullenneaux finds the cerebral fervor of Hester with élan. But the strong visceral crackle of a mother who has lost her son — mother protecting cub — is missing. Moments that should be raw and angry are quiet and the wounds acknowledged with an almost Brahmin nod of disapproval. Too much is kept internal and remote. This robs the evening of necessary passion — emotional and rhetorical.
Despite these missteps, the production works well and the discussion the play provokes is fascinating.