Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
We need a fun musical now and D.C.’s Arena Stage is delivering just that with a rollicking production of Anything Goes, featuring classic Cole Porter songs. Lisa Helmi Johanson plays Hope Harcourt, a debutante who is about to get married, but meeting someone else on board a cruise ships changes all that. In an interview with Woman Around Town’s Charlene Giannetti Lisa talks about her career, how she’s managed to amass a collection of musical instruments, and how Arena’s production of Anything Goes has been updated with a multi-cultural cast that will resonate with audiences in the nation’s capital. Lisa is playing Hope at a time when we need just that.
Two Trains Running takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the late 1960s. It was a time when views on race were shifting in the post Civil Rights era, but also a time when urban renewal was bringing change to many city neighborhoods. Nicole Lewis, whose resume includes Broadway appearances in Hair, Rent, and Lennon, is the sole woman in the seven-member cast. In this podcast, she talks with Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti about her career and her Arena Stage debut in August Wilson’s play.
Virginia-based actress Dorea Schmidt is a familiar stage presence to Washington, D.C. audiences, seen around town at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Round House, Woolly Mammoth and others. This month, she returns to Arena Stage playing two characters, Sally and Flora, in the upcoming world premiere of Sovereignty. Dorea has appeared previously at Arena Stage in Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof, all three directed by Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Sovereignty, shares the story of Sarah Ridge Polson (played by Kyla García), a young Cherokee lawyer fighting to restore her Nation’s jurisdiction who must confront the ever-present ghosts of her grandfathers. With shadows stretching from 1830s Cherokee Nation (now present-day Georgia) and Andrew Jackson’s White House to the Cherokee Nation in present-day Oklahoma, Sovereignty asks: how far would you go to protect your people and your nation?
Sovereignty is the fourth commission of Arena’s Power Plays initiative and is part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The majority of theaters in the U.S. have never produced a play by a Native playwright, creating great excitement for Nagle’s play. Dorea is thrilled to be part of the cast for this groundbreaking event. She took time from rehearsals to answer our My Career Choice questionnaire.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Attending the National Theatre Institute. While I had wanted to be an actor before I went, going there turned my tiny flame into a bonfire. The experience changed me and confirmed this was what I wanted to do.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I love so many aspects- meeting interesting people, cultivating my imagination, being a part of the impact that stories can have— but probably what I love most is how much I get to learn. I love the conversations we have in the rehearsal room or after seeing a show. I love that I’m always being challenged to think about other people’s perspectives, history, cultures, politics and my own life. I’m a very curious person and being in theater, there’s always something that blows my mind and makes me eager to know more.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I studied theater at a liberal arts college, but the program was pretty small and I left hungry to fill in the gaps. There are so many areas I want to work on, and new ones cropping up all the time, so I’m always on the hunt for training programs. Other than the National Theatre Institute, I also did an intensive at the National Theatre Conservatory. Most recently, I studied with William Esper at his studio in NYC which was AMAZING. I learned so much; I wish I could go back every week and work with him.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I’ve been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband and base of encouraging friends and family, as well as many mentors along the way. My first mentor was a teacher in college who opened my eyes to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre and eventually advised me in an independent class where I studied them to my heart’s content. I also had a bunch of amazing teachers at NTI and I’ve met many wonderful people here in DC who have opened many doors for me. Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith is my mentor now- she always makes time to talk with me about where I’m at, what I’m wrestling with or want to learn. She challenges me in my work and life and I am so grateful for her.
Kyla García (Sarah Polson) and Dorea Schmidt (Sarah Bird Northrup/Flora) in Sovereignty (Photo by Tony Powell)
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I love being home and I’ve definitely had moments of wishing I had a 9-5 job so my schedule would be more predictable and fit with my family’s. But ultimately, I keep coming back to how much I love being in theater and wouldn’t want a life without it. I love acting so much- the craft itself, the conversations that come out of the stories I get to tell, the changes it makes in me, the people I get to meet and work with. There’s nothing else that I’d rather do.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
I’m not quite sure how to answer that- I’m not sure if it has- haha! I do feel very grateful, though, for the opportunities I’ve been given in this city. I’ve gotten to work with lots of great theaters and on many different types of productions – from musicals to plays to premiering new works. I’ve gotten to return to theaters and have built relationships with so many artists; it makes it really fun to be cast in a show and already know/have worked with some of the people involved. It’s always been a dream of mine to be a member of an ensemble, and I feel in a way like I have that now working in DC; it’s just that the ensemble is a lot bigger than I imagined.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I think an ongoing challenge is to keep punching out the box that others (and even me) put myself in. Although I think it’s a more open city than some others, it’s still easy in DC to get pegged as one thing and then that’s what your career ends up being. For instance, it’s easy to get locked into musicals or plays, and once you’ve done a bunch of one it’s hard to be seen for the other. For me, I want to stretch and surprise others, but mostly myself. We are all so complex and I find that even a character that I feel most different from, I can usually find a connection with, so I never want to limit myself. I never want to be comfortable. I like having to go after something that feels scary and like it will take effort. So, it requires a constant vigilance and fight on my part to say no to certain projects. I have a vision journal of projects I want to do and artists that inspire me in this way, so I look back to that when I’m feeling discouraged or I need an extra kick of passion.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Tenacity. In life, and on stage. Staying fiercely committed to my standards for myself and my goals. And to the journey of it all – not getting swept away by comparing myself to others or expectations of where I “should” be in the rehearsal process or in my career. But rather staying grounded and clear in what I want and feel called to. It also is invaluable in rehearsal and allows me to try new things and play around.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It’s hard to answer that because I don’t really think of accomplishments so much as experiences. And which experiences I’m most grateful for/have had a significant effect on my life. For me, each of those experiences is like a new chapter of my story. So, in that light, I’d say working on Sovereignty is my latest chapter title. I’ve been deeply moved as we’ve been studying the Cherokee people and inspired by the lives, beliefs, and perspectives of so many other Native men and women I’ve been introduced to – both past and present. I’m seeing our history, our world, my place in our world in such a new way because of them. I knew at our first Sovereignty workshop last January that I had to be a part of this project, and I’m so grateful that I am. It’s been life changing for sure and I’m cherishing every moment.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Constantly check in with yourself to hear what you want and need. There will be stretches of no “work,” so how do you make opportunities for yourself, how do you feed your soul and fan your passion? Everyone has their own path – and no other actor can really tell you how to get where you want to be. Above all, I’m working on embracing life as a journey. I’ve known people who were on Broadway for years and then had no work for years after that, and the other way around, too! You never “arrive” because we’re always moving and growing, so enjoy the ride; and if you’re not enjoying it, ask yourself what can you do to change it.
This summer will be Arena Stage’s 13th year hosting Camp Arena Stage, a multi-arts day-camp. Campers (ages 8-15) have the opportunity to create their own schedule from the 75+ activities offered, including improv, rock band, podcasting, filmmaking, crossword design, hip-hop dance, songwriting, Chekov, aerial art, and more. All classes are taught by professional, working artists in a variety of art subjects. Campers also get the opportunity to perform for the rest of the camp every day during the noontime show. Some campers have even gone on to be cast in Arena Stage productions, including this season’s Carousel and last season’s Oliver! and Akeelah and the Bee.
As Director of Community Engagement and Co-Director of Camp Arena Stage, Anita Maynard-Loshis in her 13th season at Arena Stage. And she’s representative of the professionals the children have the chance to work with and learn from. Anita directed the world premiere of Our War and served as associate director on several productions, including Carousel, Oliver! and Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. Anita trained and taught at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, was on the faculty at Webster University in St. Louis, headed the theater department at the University of Alaska Southeast and was the associate artistic director of Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska. The Alaska native-inspired production of Macbeth that Anita conceived and directed was performed in English and Tlingit at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. Through Arena Stage’s devised theater program, Voices of Now, Anita has collaborated on creating and directing original plays with communities in India and Croatia.
We asked Anita to answer some questions about Camp Arena Stage and the growing popularity of the program that redefines what a summer camp experience can be.
This is your 13th year with Camp Arena Stage. How has the program evolved during that time? What changes will you make this summer?
We have continued to add different activities over the years, which is always exciting as they are based on the passions of the teaching artists that we hire. So we know that we will have the tried and true big hits every summer—like Hip Hop, Shakespeare, Improvisation, Musical Theater, Filmmaking, Rock Band, Painting, etc.—but we also have offerings that are the specialties of the individual artists—like Chinese Brush Painting, Spoken Word, Mosaics, Scene Design, and Pop/Rock Voice. We are also lucky to have some instructors that have been with us for ten years or more, as well as faculty who are joining us for the first time. We even now have a couple of former campers who went off to pursue their degrees and careers and are now back as instructors!
How is working with and directing young people different from working with and directing adults?
Young people have an amazing capacity for growth and change. For example, just because a camper might not be able to do something like match pitch when singing one summer doesn’t at all mean that they won’t be able to do it the following summer. Young people need a place where they can try different kinds of art and be encouraged to find their unique artistic voices.
They need to have the opportunity to try things and have it be okay not to be perfect at something right away. They need to learn to celebrate the art that is in them and their ability to express that in varied ways.
What type of young person is the perfect fit for Camp Arena?
I wish that every young person in the world could come to Camp because of the supportive, nurturing community that exists there. You don’t need to prove anything to come to camp, you just need to want to try new things, explore art, and help make an environment where everyone feels welcome, respected and appreciated.
What reasons do the children give for wanting to attend this Camp?
Campers give a lot of different reasons for wanting to come to Camp. One is that they love being with other young people who enjoy doing a variety of art forms. They also love being able to choose their own schedules from all the offered options. They love the choices of daily activities that they have, because there are so many different ways to be an artist at Camp. If you like to perform, there are lots of theater, dance, and music classes, but if you are not a performer there are many visual arts, writing and filmmaking offerings. Or you can mix it up and tailor your own schedule that is right for you!
Some of the children attending the Camp have been cast in Arena productions. How does that happen?
When the casting director at Arena Stage is looking for young people to fill roles in our productions, we are usually one of the first stops. We will be asked to suggest campers that fit the requirements of the characters, and they will be contacted and asked to audition. It’s up to the casting director and director whether or not they get the role, but they get the opportunity because of having been at Camp.
What activities are most popular in the Camp?
One of the campers’ favorite things is that we have a show after lunch every day at Camp Arena Stage. It’s a variety show that campers can sign up to be part of, and instructors can sign up their classes to be part of—so if you have a skill, talent or demonstration that you want to share with the whole camp, you can take the stage and share it. So they are either performing in or watching a show every single day after lunch! Another special thing at camp is our Choice period—after the show there is a recreation period where surprise activities are offered. There will be a list of activities and campers need to decide right then and there what they want to do for the next 45 minutes—the list might include very physical things like ultimate Frisbee or dance party while also having quieter activities like playing board games or making friendship bracelets or just fun choices like singalongs or stage makeup. Every day there are over a dozen surprise activities in the Choice period, to allow the campers to have some unexpected fun to break up the day before going back to their regular classes.
What classes might be surprising to those not familiar with Camp Arena?
Classes that you might not expect at an arts camp are Pickup Sports, Newspaper and Surprise Squad, which is a class that focuses on doing random acts of kindness. New arts classes include Graphic Design, Clowning, String Ensemble, Solo Performance and Weirdism!
To participate in rock band, does a child have to know how to play a musical instrument?
Most campers in the rock band have played their instrument for at least a year, but there is also room in the rock band for vocalists and people who can shake a mean tambourine.
Are parents and guests able to visit the noontime shows?
Yes, parents and guests can visit the noontime shows, however since it is a gated campus, we like to be able to give a heads up to the guard to expect them.
Can you tell us about some of the professionals who will visit the Camp this summer?
Some of our instructors have performed on Broadway, on National Tours or at Arena Stage; some have had their writing published or had a gallery showing; and sometimes we get special guests that are visiting Arena Stage for professional reasons to talk to our campers. For example, a couple of summers ago Ben Platt (Pitch Perfect) and Laura Dreyfus (Glee) spoke with our campers when they were at Arena Stage rehearsing the new musical Dear Evan Hansen, which originated at Arena Stage but is now a big Broadway hit nominated for nine Tony Awards.
Why do you enjoy running this Camp?
I love to see the campers grow and come into their own through exploring art. I also love being in such a positive environment with a group of artist-educators that want to give every single child the Best Summer Ever.
Do you keep in touch with some of the children who have attended in the past? Any interesting/inspiring stories to share?
We keep in touch with many of our campers—frequently after they “age out” of camp they will go into our Musical Theater Training Company, which is our intensive for high school students—that’s what Emma Sophie Moore did, who performed in our production of Carousel this season. We have some campers who become part of our year long Voices of Now devised theater program and come to Arena during the school year to create original theater. We also have several former campers who apply to be counselors-in-training at Camp, and we hire them to assist in classes and with the running of camp. And as I mentioned earlier, we have two instructors at camp this summer who were campers at one time and are now coming back to teach.
Before an actor steps on stage to become a character in a play, a great deal of time has been spent preparing for that role. Joy Jones, now appearing in Arena Stage’s A Raisin in the Sun, began her advance work by watching an archival recording of the 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s play which starred Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger and Anika Noni Rose as Walter’s sister, Beneatha, the role Jones is now playing. Jones’ research, however, was just beginning.
“I analyzed my script: first writing down anything that Beneatha says about herself, then writing down anything all the other characters say describing her, and then going back to Beneatha’s lines and noting any vocal habits or repetitions,” Jones explains. “For example, Beneatha says `gee’ and `oh’ frequently, which told me she was an expressive person.”
Jones also reviewed the packet of background information the play’s dramaturg, Georgetown University Professor Soyica Colbert, gave to the cast and creative team. “It contained details of Lorraine Hansberry’s own life and details about Chicago and the broader society [in the early 1960s],” she says. “My next step was watching films and documentaries of the time, especially those featuring African-Americans and other people of African descent.” Jones found the standouts were: Carmen Jones, an adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen for an African-American cast; Black Orpheus, which brought the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to the twentieth-century madness of Carnival in Rio; and Take a Giant Leap, a coming of age film about a black teenager growing up in a predominantly white environment.
And all that before memorizing one line!
Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith seems to be a woman on a mission. This season’s lineup of plays – Roe, Watch on the Rhine, Intelligence, and Smart People – provoke discussion at a time when those conversations are desperately needed. A Raisin in the Sun fits that pattern. Hansberry’s play, which first debuted on Broadway in 1959, centers on an an African-American family living in Chicago, struggling to improve their lives. The family patriarch has died, leaving his widow, Lena (Lizan Mitchell) with a life insurance payment of $10,000. How that money will be spent creates tension within the family. Lena’s son, Walter Lee (Will Cobbs), who works as a chauffeur, wants to open a liquor store. Beneatha has set her sights on becoming a doctor, yet she is still defining herself, illustrated in the play by the two very different men she is dating.
“I could relate to Beneatha,” says Jones. “I remember being in college at 20 and being very sure about some things – who I thought I was, who I wanted to be. And I also remember there being many, many things that I was unsure and even ignorant about. I knew that I was in a state of becoming. So my portrayal of Beneatha definitely goes back and forth between being sure and unsure.”
Despite her ambitions to further her education, Beneatha seems less concerned than her brother with the money that their mother will be receiving. “I think Beneatha’s response is three-fold,” explains Jones. “One is a sense of rightness about the money being her mother’s as next of kin. Two, is her certainty as the younger – somewhat spoiled – sibling that she’ll be taken care of like always. And third is the optimism of youth. That all contrasts with frustration and desperation that Walter Lee has as a husband and father in his mid thirties.”
While the play never shows Beneatha actually studying, she expresses her ambitions through the play’s dialogue. “In her very first scene, she mentions a recent biology class,” Jones says. In a scene with one of her suitors, Joseph Asagai, played by Bueka Uwemedimo, Beneatha “marvels at the power of medicine to heal a young playmate, and says that she wants to cure people.”
Asagai, who is from Nigeria, teaches Beneatha about her African roots, while George Murchison (Keith L. Royal Smith) takes her to cultural events. “Each young man offers her a different set of possibilities,” says Jones. “Her time with George exposes her to high culture: theatre performances and `nice places’, and a world of wealth and material comfort. In contrast, Asagai offers her entrée into a world beyond Chicago: a world of political transformation and ancient culture. And both men are beautiful!” Which one would she choose? “Several women I’ve spoken to after performances tell me what they thought Beneatha did after the play ended. Some think Beneatha goes to Nigeria with Asagai, and others are equally certain that she leaves them both behind for a career in medicine!”
The issue of abortion is brought up in the play, a topic that continues to be debated. “At our opening night, Joi Gresham, the trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust said `that we are all catching up to Lorraine,’” says Jones. “She meant that so many of the issues Lorraine Hansberry discusses are still with us, including abortion. I believe it’s included to show a context where a woman could consider abortion as the best or rational choice to preserve her relationship with her partner and the financial well being of her entire family.”
Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger
Racial equality, however, is the overall theme of the play. The Civil Rights movement was in its infancy. When Lena uses some of the money to put a down payment on a house in an all white community, the reaction is swift and hurtful. A representative of the neighborhood attempts to buy back the house from Lena. “There are several versions of the play which include scenes and even characters that are not in this production,” says Jones. “One such scene is with a neighbor, Mrs. Johnson. She tries to draw the family into conversation about the expected check and eventually berates them – especially Beneatha – for their proud ways. It’s an insightful scene because it shows that in this working class community the Younger family is perceived as strivers, who may or may not have ‘airs’. Therefore, inside and outside of the family it is not a great surprise. They not only work hard but dream big.”
The title of the play comes from a Langston Hughes poem Harlem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” “When I heard about the genesis of the title I thought that it was a powerful call back to the poem,” says Jones. “The title could’ve been Dream Deferred, but instead Lorraine Hansberry shows the poetic image. The choice – like much of the play’s dialogue – shows that Lorraine Hansberry herself had a sense of lyrical language.”
More than 50 years later, Hansberry’s play still resonates, particularly in our nation’s capital. “The play is important now because we always need stories that remind us about all the humanity in all the other people around us,” says Jones. “And as the city grows and changes, and the nation discusses security and immigration, it’s timely to think about our perception of insiders and outsiders. I would hope that audiences are reminded of the nobility and imperfection of regular people who want to live good, principled lives and make the world better for themselves and the children.”
Photos by C. Stanley Photography Top: Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger
A Raisin in the Sun Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-554-9066
Lydia Diamond’s Smart People deals with all the “isms” – racism, careerism, chauvinism, conformism, conservatism, elitism, materialism, multiculturalism, etc. All those “isms” affect our attitudes and beliefs. The play, needless to say, is thought-provoking, causing the actors and, of course, audience members to think, react, and, yes, squirm a little as what unfolds on stage provokes self-examination. “There is a lot of anxiety in the country and the city right now,” says Sue Jin Song, who plays a psychologist, Ginny Yang. “I think this play is topical and can inspire great debate and, hopefully, introspection. We need to find a way to dialogue about these issues to move forward as a country.”
While the “smart” in the title refers to the intellect of the four main characters – besides a psychologist, they include an actress, a doctor, and a neurobiologist – these professionals at times come across as pretentious. “They are smart, as in bright, but definitely have shades of arrogance,” says Lorene Chesley, who plays the actress, Valerie. Sue Jin observes that each person is accustomed to being the smartest person in the room. “So what happens when you are met with another person who is just as smart and opinionated?” she asks.
Sue Jin Song
Spirited conversations happen, even fireworks, between the four who are friends, even lovers. “I love that this play is funny, smart, and brave,” says Sue Jin. “I love that theater gives us a safe place to allow for difficult conversations.” Diamond set the play during the 2008 presidential election, but it will be presented at Arena Stage in the aftermath of the 2016 election. “People wanted to believe that with Barack Obama’s election we were now a post-racial country,” says Sue Jin. “Well, not so fast.”
Each actress connects with her character. “Valerie believes in her craft one thousand percent and she believes in herself, that she can do anything you throw her way,” says Lorene. The downside is that “she says reckless things and takes things way too personally at times.” Valerie believes her MFA from Harvard will jump start her career. “She gets pigeonholed in the roles she goes out for, and is not respected for her MFA training,” says Lorene. “I have experienced the same thing. When I first got out of grad school I just knew I could do anything, but I immediately got sent out for roles that are my `type.’ It’s like I have done all this training to widen and expand my horizons and then Bam! Back to playing whatever I classically look like. I know how to navigate and play the game now that I’ve been in the business for years.”
Like Valerie, Ginny has worked hard to succeed in her profession. “Even her weaknesses or faults just make her more human and interesting to me,” Sue Jin says. “She is facing her life choices and the impact that those choices have on her clients and on her work. But the higher you climb, the further you have to fall.” Ginny is aware of being an Asian-American woman in an institution and country that is still dominated by white men. “She navigates that system, but at what cost?” asks Sue Jin. Like Lorene, Sue Jin says she has often found herself typecast. “As an Asian actress, I have turned down work and auditions for certain roles and projects,” she says.
Both women are fans of Lydia Diamond and also wanted to work with Seema Sueko, who directs. The production, they say, will not disappoint, involving the audience immediately in the action. “[It opens] with a bang!” says Sue Jin. “Hold on and grab your seatbelts.”
Adds Lorene: “With the political climate we’re in, race, love, all of these topics that are unveiled throughout this play, it’s imperative to open the line of communication so then we can move forward with real change.“ She hopes that Smart People will encourage people “to discuss these important topics… and to LISTEN to one another.”
Top photo by Tony Powell Left to right: Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Gregory Perri as Brian White, Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang
Smart People Written by Lydia Diamond Directed by Seema Sueko Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-554-9066 April 14 through May 21, 2017
In 2002, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was sent to the the African nation of Niger to assess whether Iraq was buying uranium ore to build nuclear weapons. Wilson’s investigation found no such evidence, but in the 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Four months after, the U.S. invaded Iraq, basing that military operation on the erroneous information that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.” Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” basically accusing the Bush Administration of lying to justify the war.
Retaliation against Wilson zeroed in on his wife, Valerie Plame, a career CIA operative whose identity was leaked to the press by members of the Bush Administration and first published in the Washington Post by conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s outing effectively ended her career and also placed any assets she had worked with in danger. Although Plame did not send her husband to Niger, she also was held responsible for that decision, bringing about charges of nepotism.
Hannah Yelland and Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s aptly titled Intelligence, now playing at Arena Stage, purports to tell Plame’s story. First commissioned in 2015 as part of Arena’s Power Play initiative, Lawton’s work is well-timed. Intelligence leaks are in the news, but as Intelligence shows, those leaks are not new. In a tight and tense 90-minutes, Intelligence imagines Plame’s double life – on one hand, an undercover CIA operative, and on the other, a wife to Wilson and mother to their three-year old twins.
In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Lawton said that she writes “out of a deep frustration for the lack of strong, complex and engaging roles for women in the American theater.” She was drawn to Plame’s story about a woman “fighting to ensure the national security of the United States.” Intelligence is directed by Daniella Topol, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.
In Arena’s Kogod Cradle, Misha Kachman’s set design, dominated by dark gray moveable walls, creates the perfect backdrop for clandestine activities. On the left side of the stage, couches and a coffee table represent the more intimate and comfortable Wilson/Plame living room. The columns also work as screens where video scenes from 9/11 are played, along with snippets of speeches made by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Ethan Hova, Nora Achrati, and Hannah Yelland
Working for the CIA’s counter-proliferation division, Plame (a passionate performance by Hannah Yelland, who also resembles Plame) is investigating whether Iraq is amassing weapons. The importance of her mission cannot be understated. Not only will her findings produce valuable evidence that may or may not result in the U.S. attacking Iraq, but any assets who provide that information might be targeted for death. Intelligence is a fictionalized account of what might have transpired as Plame went about her duties.
Dr. Malik Nazari (a searing performance by Ethan Hova), representing one of Plame’s assets, is an Iraqi who once tested chemical weapons for Saddam’s regime. Often the most unpleasant part of a CIA agent’s job is pressuring, even blackmailing, those who are innocent. Leyla Nazari (Nora Achrati) Malik’s niece, is a dress designer who makes frequent trips to Jordan. Plame coming to Leyla’s shop, ostensibly to pick up a scarf, threatens to turn over information about those trips to the government unless Leyla convinces her uncle to meet with her.
Nazari agrees to the meeting, in the coffee shop he now runs. Now out of Iraq, he’s still wracked with guilt over testing chemical weapons on prisoners and others who were unable to defend themselves. He agrees to go back to Iraq to gather information, not for Plame or the U.S., but for his people, he tells her. Plame promises to go with him to Iraq, but is ordered not to do so by her supervisor, Elaine Matthews (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman). That won’t be the only promise Plame is forced to break. After she’s outed, she’s barred from the CIA (on her next visit, she’s given a visitor pass), and is unable to contact or protect Nazari or Leyla.
Hannah Yelland and Lawrence Redmond
Plame’s situation takes a toll on her at home, too. While her husband (Lawrence Redmond) is depicted here as being less than supportive about her job, complaining when she has to work late or travel (she’s a CIA operative!), he also doesn’t stop to think about what effect his Times column might have on her career. Seeing her name in print in Novak’s story, Plame lashes out at him, pointing out that he has placed her and the children in danger. (In real life, Plame and Wilson eventually relocated from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico, after receiving death threats.)
Never before has gathering intelligence been more important. And never before have these dedicated people who place their lives on the line every day to perform these duties come under such unrelenting attack. Intelligence is a cautionary tale that we have to do better, recruiting the best and brightest for these challenging assignments and then giving them the tools and the support they need to succeed in their missions to keep America safe.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Intelligence Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton Directed by Daniella Topol Kogod Cradle Arena Stage Extended through April 9, 2017
You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you, people in danger.
Theater audiences don’t usually burst into applause in the middle of a scene. But these aren’t usual times, and the line above, from Lillian Hellman’s 1941 Watch on the Rhine, certainly struck a nerve with those attending an opening night performance at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Hellman’s 76 year-old play may be about a different time in history, but the themes seem eerily fitting today.
The Fichandler Stage
Family matriarch, Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason), and her son, David (Thomas Keegan), live outside the nation’s capital, in a mansion watched over by two servants, Anise (Helen Hedman), and Joseph (Addison Switzer). Also in the house are two guests – Count Teck De Brancovis (J Anthony Crane) and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne). In the round Fichandler Stage, the gazebo-like living room designed by Todd Rosenthal is upscale yet warm and comfortable, a setting that reflects the inhabitants.
The household is preparing for a visit by Sara (Lisa Bruneau), Fanny’s daughter and David’s sister, who has been in Europe for 20 years. Sara arrives with her husband, Kurt Müller (a visceral performance by Andrew Long), and their three children, Joshua (Ethan Miller), Babette (Lucy Breedlove), and Bodo (Tyler Bowman).
Ethan Miller, Helen Hedman, Lise Bruneau, Andrew Long, and Lucy Breedlove
Fanny and David greet Sara warmly. Fanny not only is thrilled to have her daughter home, but excited to meet her grandchildren. She’s soon showering them with presents. David and Sara reminisce about their times growing up in the mansion. But their lives have taken far different paths. While Fanny and David have been living in a safe “bubble,” Sara and her family have been on the front lines in Germany, watching with horror the destruction wrought by Hitler. “The world has changed and some of the people in it are dangerous,” Sara says. “It’s time you knew that.” Kurt has not worked as an engineer since 1933 and instead risks his life fighting the rise of fascism. And that fight has followed him to America. He receives word that his compatriots in Germany are in trouble and he needs to return, along with the suitcase of money contributed by supporters of the cause, to help free them.
Like so many Americans during that time, Fanny and David fail to grasp the full import of what is happening in Europe. Seeing the danger through Sara’s and Kurt’s eyes brings things into focus. They fully support Kurt’s efforts, as evidenced by David’s declaration quoted above.
J Anthony Crane and Natalia Payne
The fly in the ointment is the count. De Brancovis is a desperate man. His marriage is ending (Marthe has fallen in love with David), and after spending nights gambling at the German embassy, he’s in serious debt. When he discovers Kurt’s identity and what’s in the suitcase, he sees an opportunity to repay the Farrelly’s hospitality with blackmail. He asks for what’s in the suitcase, as well as money from the Farrellys, to keep quiet. That demand will set into motion events that threaten everyone with deadly consequences.
Marsha Mason (photo byTony Powell)
Mason, once a high profile presence in 1970 romantic comedies, has talked about the difficulties older actresses face landing film roles. Her recent appearances on the small screen include guest spots on CBS’s The Good Wife and Madame Secretary, and Grace and Frankie on Netflix. She’s the high profile star in this production. Don’t miss the chance to see this professional at the top of her game. She commands attention, showing the many facets of Fanny’s personality as she morphs from the perfect hostess and caring mother into someone who is more flint than fluff, ready to protect those she loves and make a moral stand. “Well, we’ve been shaken out of the magnolias,” she says, the full impact of the situation hitting home.
Andrew Long and Thomas Keegan
Director Jackie Maxwell brings her magic touch to an excellent supporting cast. Long’s performance is riveting. While Kurt loves his wife and children, standing up against fascism is a battle he fights for them. Long balances both sides of Kurt’s character, gentle with his wife and children one moment, lashing out against the count in another. As brave as Kurt is, it’s Bruneau’s Sara who stands out as the courageous one. Once Kurt leaves on his rescue mission, however, she laments what her life will be like without him. The three young actors, playing characters who have had to grow up much too soon, also display maturity beyond their years. These are three young people to watch.
Keegan’s David is the ballast steadying the family. Without his unconditional love and support, Kurt and Sara might have been left to fend for themselves. Besides turning in a strong performance, Keegan serves as the play’s fight captain, staging a scene that is both exciting and startling.
Crane’s evil count brings to mind other villains, mostly from films, who were never true believers but supported fascism for their own selfish reasons. These many years later, Hellman’s play still resonates.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Watch on the Rhine Fichandler Stage Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW Through March 5, 2017