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.
Washington, D.C.’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival is producing a series of plays intending to disrupt our thinking about how we operate as a people and a nation. Annalisa Dias’ 4,380 Nights may be the hardest hitting of these productions, taking us inside Guantanamo where 41 men suspected of terrorist activity are still being detained, some for more than ten years. Dias has crafted a play filled with history, horror, humanity, and, yes, humor. She is a playwright to watch.
Entering Signature’s Ark Theater, one of the actors is already on stage. As Malik Essaid, Ahmad Kamal is dressed in prison orange, his hands and feet chained and attached to an anchor in the stage’s floor. As the audience files in, he does not shy away from eye contact, yet his gaze is defiant, challenging us. As the play unfolds, Kamal skillfully takes us inside Malik’s world as the prisoner displays an astounding array of emotions trying to understand what he has done to warrant incarceration in a hellhole like Guantanamo. How can a nation that stands for the rule of law, that guarantees its citizens the right to a just and speedy trial, imprison Malik and others for years without formally charging them with a crime?
Ahmad Kamal and Michael John Casey
When Bud Abramson (Michael John Casey) shows up to represent Malik, he offers something of an explanation: “The government has created a black hole for the legal process.” Malik is at first reluctant to accept Abramson’s help, unsure whether he can trust any American. But the lawyer is persistent, saying that not all Americans approve of what is happening at Guantanamo. These tabletop conversations between Malik and Abramson are riveting. Slowly, Abramson teases out Malik’s story, how the young man left Algeria and then traveled to Paris, Afghanistan, and London where, with a forged passport, he was taken into custody and shipped to Guantanamo. Did he make a series of stupid mistakes, or was he part of a terrorist network? While Abramson seems willing to believe Malik, one of the prison’s military officers (Rex Daugherty), will go to any length, including physical and psychological abuse, to obtain a confession. This violent scene is so realistic (kudos to fight choreographer Robb Hunter) that it is difficult to watch, perhaps the reason some members of the audience chose not to return for the second act.
Ahmad Kamal and Rex Daugherty
Each time Malik and Abramson meet, more time has passed. On one occasion, Abramson brings Malik food from an Algerian store. Malik insists they share and each enjoys a stuffed grape leave. Yet Abramson must soon deliver some bad news: Malik’s uncle has died. Malik’s anger dissipates when he learns that Abramson traveled to Paris on his own to confirm the death and to bring back for Malik the uncle’s Koran.
As a pseudo Greek chorus, The Woman (Lynette Rathnam) is an eerie presence as she attempts to educate us about the roots of conflict between a Christian and Muslim world. The history lesson focuses on the war between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front (1954-1962) when Algeria won its independence. But the sides were not clearly drawn. Kamal also plays El Hadj El Kaim, an Algerian who aided the French and became complicit in the torture and death inflicted by them upon Algerians. Daugherty takes on a second role as Colonel Aimable Pelissier, the French officer who shows no remorse as the bodies of men, women, and children pile up in the conflict. (There is a lot of information to digest about this war and reading up ahead of time is recommended.)
It’s a cliché for a reviewer to say that there’s not a weak link in a play’s cast, but that certainly is the case here. Kamal’s performance is simply astounding, and he is well matched by Casey in their encounters. The relationship between attorney and client evolves slowly, with each actor revealing sides of his character as they try to cope with the frustration of the situation and to preserve whatever humanity is possible.
Daugherty, with ramrod straight posture, never flinches in his dual role as two military officers who see their roles in black and white terms, damn the consequences. Rathnam’s storytelling draws us in with her facial expressions and graceful movements. She’s simply mesmerizing.
Kathleen Akerley’s skill as a director is evident in every scene, with no false notes struck by this talented cast.
Signature’s intimate Ark Theater is the perfect setting for 4,390 Nights, bringing the audience so close to the action that it’s impossible to look away. Scenic design by Elizabeth Jenkins includes a chain backdrop that echoes prison bars and side areas furnished with pillows and glowing lanterns. Costume design (Heather Lockard) is eye-catching, particularly the satin gown worn by Rathnam.
Guantanamo has slipped from the headlines. Dias again places it on center stage.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
4,390 Nights Written by Annalisa Dias Directed by Kathleen Akerley Ark Theater Signature Theatre 4200 Campbell Avenue 703-820-9771 Through February 18, 2018
Sovereignty is the power that a country has to govern itself or another country or state. Collins English Dictionary
When a drunk white man wearing a Trump T-shirt stumbles into a bar on Cherokee lands and is subsequently evicted, we have our first hint that Mary Kathryn Nagle won’t hesitate to include current politics into her play, Sovereignty, now playing at Arena Stage. Indeed, parallels between the administrations of Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump are plentiful. Jackson made removing the Cherokee nation from ancestral lands in Georgia his campaign promise, just as Trump continues to pursue strict immigration policies, including his central campaign promise, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. (Jackson’s portrait is prominently displayed in the White House and was in the background in November as Trump honored a group of Native American code talkers during World War II.)
(L to R) Andrew Roa, Kalani Queypo, and Jake Hart
Sovereignty, whichflashes between present day and the 1830s, stresses that the battles Native Americans continue to fight are not over. (While the play attempts to educate the audience about these past and current events, reading up on this troubling part of our nation’s history beforehand is recommended.) Jackson remained focused on relocating the Cherokees farther west, even defying U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s 1832 decision in Worcester v. Georgia that held Native American nations were “distinct, independent political communities retaining their original natural rights,” and thus were entitled to federal protection from the actions of state governments that infringed on their sovereignty.
Those within the Cherokee nation were divided on what to do. Supporters of Chief John Ross defended the rights of the Cherokees to stay on their lands, while followers of Major Ridge, John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, known as the “Ridge Party,” saw relocation as inevitable and signed the Treaty of Echota which set out the conditions for removal. (Nagle is a direct descendant of Major Ridge and John Ridge.)
Joseph Carlson and Kyla García
In Sovereignty, those divisions continue to reverberate when Sarah Polson (Kyla García) returns to the reservation where she grew up. Now an attorney, she’s come back to help her people. Her professional and personal life will never be the same. She becomes engaged to a white man, Ben (Joseph Carlson, who also appears as President Jackson), while also using her legal talents to fight for a continuation of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In the 1978 decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts did not have jurisdiction over non-Indians who committed crimes on tribal lands. Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion, with a dissenting opinion written by Justice Thurgood Marshall who was joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Nagle says that following that court decision, violence against Native American women on tribal lands “skyrocketed,” since non-Indian offenders knew they wouldn’t be prosecuted for their crimes. In 2013, Congress passed VAWA, restoring part of tribal nation’s jurisdiction. What will happen in the future remains a question.
All of this is a lot to digest in a two-hour play. It helps that the set is minimal (design by Ken MacDonald), and that Director Molly Smith maintains a brisk pace between scenes. (While the first act suffers from information overload, the second act unfolds more smoothly.)
García is the centerpiece of the play (channeling the playwright all the way), and she’s more than up to the task. A slight figure in a bright red dress, she doesn’t shy away from debating tribal chiefs or resisting her fiancé’s attempts to focus on her wedding rather than the law. While Carlson is believable as Ben, he’s less so as Jackson.
Kalani Queypo and Dorea Schmidt
Dorea Schmidt, the only other woman in the cast, handles with aplomb her two roles: present day Flora, who has several lines that inject a bit of comic relief into the action; and, Sarah Bird Northrup, the white woman who marries John Ridge and serves as his support during dark times. As John Ridge, Kalani Queypo plays the role of the statesman, trying to negotiate a compromise that will save his people, yet realizing that doing so may make him a target. Andrew Roa is a standout playing Major Ridge, where he delivers his dialogue in the Cherokee language, and as Roger Ridge Polson, Sarah’s doting father, who shows his softer side with his grandchild. Jake Hart is terrific as Elias Boudinot, in the past, and Watie, in the present.
The one act of violence in the play is jarring and, while making a valuable point, also strains credibility with regard to the motivations of various characters. Still, that scene certainly brings home what’s at stake for women on tribal lands who may not be able to depend on the law to protect them.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Sovereignty Written by Mary Kathryn Nagle Directed by Molly Smith Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street, SW
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
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
Norma McCorvey is a fascinating and complicated figure. As a young woman living in Texas, she became the “Roe” behind that landmark U.S. Supreme Court case when she filed a lawsuit seeking a legal abortion. In later years as a born-again Christian, she joined the pro-life movement and campaigned against abortion. Lisa Loomer’s play, a co-production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, arrives at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage at a critical time. Incoming President Donald Trump has promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, a possible first strike to overturning Roe v. Wade.
Loomer is comfortable tackling controversial topics. She co-wrote the screenplay for Girl Interrupted, which starred Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie as women in a psychiatric facility. Her play, The Waiting Room, brought together three women from different time periods who meet in a doctor’s office, each suffering from undergoing cosmetic procedures – foot binding, corsetry, and breast implants – to conform to society’s idea of beauty. In an interview with the New York Times, she said that she initially resisted the idea of writing a play about Roe v. Wade, feeling that a court case “sounds kind of dry.” But after doing research, she changed her mind.
Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman, and Pamela Dunlap
The play focuses on the two central figures in the lawsuit, McCorvey and Sarah Weddington, the 26 year-old attorney who argues the case all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s 1969 and McCorvey, who has already given birth to two children, one being raised by her mother, the other, placed for adoption, finds herself pregnant for the third time. Weddington and her law partner, Linda Coffee, have been looking to file a lawsuit against the state of Texas on behalf of a pregnant woman seeking a legal abortion. After an initial meeting in a Dallas pizza parlor, the two lawyers find their plaintiff. Because McCorvey doesn’t want her real name used in the lawsuit, she becomes not Jane Doe but Jane Roe. The lawsuit is filed against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.
McCorvey and Weddington are polar opposites. With her wild hair and worn hippie clothing, McCorvey, played convincingly by Sara Bruner, shows the effects of a hardscrabble life. Raised by her alcoholic mother, McCorvey abuses alcohol herself and has several run ins with the law. After leaving her abusive husband, she comes out as a lesbian with a lover, Connie (Catherine Castellanos). Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) is an ambitious lawyer in a field dominated by men. With her carefully coifed blond hair and conservative yet feminine suits, she’s able to charm McCorvey one minute and argue forcefully in court the next. Both Bruner and Agnew break the fourth wall, frequently talking directly to the audience about what is transpiring as the case wends it way through the courts.
Except for Bruner and Agnew, these versatile cast members move in and out of many different roles, never missing a beat. Particularly impressive is Susan Lynsky who plays Linda Coffee as the uptight assistant to the more polished Weddington, trransforms into a zealous supporter of the abortion movement, then shows up as a timid pregnant woman. Jim Abele, who plays Weddington’s strait-laced husband, Ron, morphs into the Bible-thumping Flip Benham, founder of a pro-life movement. He not only breaks the fourth wall, but addresses the audience like we’re part of his loyal congregation.
Sara Bruner and Jim Abele, in front, with Zoe Bishop and Amy Newman, in rear
After the Supreme Court ruling (Richard Elmore as Justice Harry Blackmun in a black robe reads some of the language from the decision to great effect), McCorvey works in a clinic, helping other women through the process. This is where her commitment to abortion begins to waver. Loomer skillfully shows McCorvey’s change of heart as a gradual process. She’s horrified when a woman who is six-months along comes in to terminate the pregnancy. Another woman who comes to the clinic for what will be her third abortion, receives an outburst from McCorvey that the procedure shouldn’t be treated as birth control. But it’s the influence of Flip, his wife (Amy Newman), and daughter (Zoe Bishop), that has the greatest impact on McCorvey’s attitude towards abortion. When McCorvey crosses to the other side, she’s a zealous pro-lifer.
While Roe v. Wade still stands, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), a young black woman unable to afford an abortion, delivers a caution to those who believe abortion is available to all women. Final words are delivered by Agnew as Weddington, stating that the woman running for president, a supporter of abortion rights, won the popular vote but lost the election.
Despite that pro-abortion ending, the play provides enough ammunition for both sides of the debate. As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith stated in the program notes: “If the ideas in this play inspire you to spark conversations with your loved ones, contact your representatives and become active in your community, theater has done its job.”
Photos by C. Stanley Photography Top photo: Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew
Roe Written by Lisa Loomer Directed by Bill Rauch Through February 19, 2017 Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.” Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Let’s face it. No one wants to think about death, about our own or those close to us. So deciding to spend an evening in the theater listening to a play that focuses on death may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, by the end of The Year of Magical Thinking, we come away, not exactly elated, but not exactly depressed. Partly that’s due to the eloquent words of Joan Didion on whose memoir the play is based. Mostly, though, it’s because of a heartfelt, deeply affecting performance by one of the greatest actors of her generation, Kathleen Turner.
Turner, whose credits include many stage and screen performances, is not a stranger to Arena Stage, where The Year of Magical Thinking is now playing. She previously appeared in Mother Courage and Her Children and Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Each time she appears at Arena Stage, it’s an event. This time is no exception. With expert direction from Gaye Taylor Upchurch and staging in the intimate Kogood Cradle, Turner seems less to be acting than carrying on a conversation with a group of close friends. She makes frequent eye contact with the audience, establishing an emotional connection that draws you into the performance.
When Arena’s Artistic Director, Molly Smith, asked Turner which project she wanted to tackle next, she immediately mentioned The Year of Magical Thinking, saying the play “is about grace, and I want to bring that to the audience.” She certainly manages that, taking us through two horrific years in Didion’s life when she lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana. Didion and Dunne not only were married for nearly 40 years, but had a professional relationship, writing screenplays for Panic in Needle Park, which starred a young Al Pacino, and Play It As It Lays, based on her novel, which starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. They moved from New York to California after their marriage, in 1964, and in 1966 adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo.
Didion’s roller-coaster ride begins on December 30, 2003. Now living in New York, the couple had just been to visit Quintana who is in a coma at Beth Israel North (formerly Doctor’s Hospital), on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They return to their apartment where Didion prepares dinner and builds a fire. “A fire meant you were home, safe for the night,” Turner says. At one point, Dunne stops talking and slumps over in his chair. At first, she thinks he is joking, but soon realizes he has passed out. An ambulance arrives quickly; she notes the exact times that each event occurred. At the hospital, she’s taken aside. “If they give you a social worker, you’re in trouble,” she says. She returns home with John’s wallet, cellphone, and clothes. “Grief has its place, but also it’s limits,” Turner says, explaining the aftermath, coping with John’s death and continuing to watch over their daughter.
When Quintana emerges from her coma, she’s told about the death of her father and is able to attend and speak at his funeral held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she had been married just a short time before. Quintana and her husband decide to take a trip to California, something her mother encourages. While there she suffers a massive hematoma, requiring hours of surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Although she recovers, she dies of acute pancreatitis the following year. Two blows in two years. The original memoir only dealt with John’s death. Didion later wrote Blue Nights about Quintana’s death. The play was expanded to include Joan’s coping with both deaths.
How does one cope? By magical thinking, which Didion describes as an anthropologist would. If a person thinks long and hard enough that an event can be prevented, perhaps it would be. In the play, Turner talks about the inability to give away John’s shoes, with the hope that if she holds onto them, he will return.
The Year of Magical Thinking runs an hour and 50 minutes with no intermission. There’s no down time for Turner or for the audience, either. We sign on for this ride and in less time than we imagine, it’s over. What we have experienced, however, will stay with us for a long, long time.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Kathleen Turner in The Year of Magical Thinking By Joan Didion based on her memoir Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW
What begins as a cordial dinner party on Manhattan’s Upper East Side soon turns into a battleground when the topics of religion and politics enter the conversation. Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is a play for our times, one bold enough to tackle controversial subjects that many people want to sidestep. That the play meets these topics head on makes for an absorbing evening of theater. Ivy Vahanian, who plays Emily in Arena Stage’s production, took time from her performing schedule to answer our questions about the play.
The four professionals who gather for a dinner party in Disgraced come from different backgrounds and all have succeeded in their professions. But at what cost? Is it necessary to downplay one’s ethnicity and beliefs in order to move ahead?
As Emily, the answer would shift depending if we are at the beginning of the play or at the end. I think at her core Emily believes that it is necessary to stay true to who you are in any given circumstance and that “moving ahead” requires a belief in self and what we stand for. This though, is a reflection of her unintended naiveté. We see the cost of this directly in the events of the play and how the price she and Amir pay is life-altering.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar contrasts present-day attitudes towards religion with their historical, even ancient, beginnings. Should we expect religion to change like technology does? Or does adhering to long-held beliefs make those religions stronger?
I don’t think religion can change like technology does. These are deeply human, cultural, emotional facets that have worked their way into the psyche of religious peoples and culture in general. None of the characters in this play are religious. They are intelligent enough to reflect on the circumstances (i.e. culture/religious influence/art history) from which they are formed, and, as the viewer, we see directly how much those influences can overrule a very thoughtful group of people. I think religion is only strengthened by a technological world. People are trying to find a center in a rapidly changing landscape.
We are always told to steer clear of discussing politics and religion. But in today’s climate is that possible or even advantageous? If those discussions do occur how can participants on both sides make them teaching moments?
“It’s time we woke up.” This is what my character says and I do believe that if we don’t discuss with clarity and intelligence the current climate of our country and its place in the world, we are only disintegrating the potential for common growth. So much of what divides people is underexposure and ignorance. I think we can teach through clear communication and the bravery of vulnerability…and to take responsibility of our actions. This play, our production, begs us to be adults in a barrage of emotion and primal need.
Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced
Why is it important for this play to be staged right now in Washington, D.C.? What do you hope audiences will take away from the performance?
I think the intelligence and efficiency of this script will resonate widely with this community. It asks you to look deeper into the very complex conversation of Islam. It exposes a topic that is not generally discussed and/or revealed. We will never be able to move beyond prejudices without a softening of one’s own beliefs. We are stronger in vulnerability. It doesn’t feel that way, but we are. Personally, I want the audience to leave having witnessed the deep love between Emily and Amir. I think this is a love story…and only until we know ourselves fully can we love another. I want people to put the mirror up to themselves.
How did you prepare for playing your character? Did you find that her beliefs and attitude were similar to your own? Different?
Timothy cast all of us because of an intrinsic understanding of these characters from the absolute beginning. There wasn’t much preparation. We are so blessed to have such a strong script that lets us “play.” We have the trust of a profound director. We have an impeccable creative team to fill in our world onstage with the support of a brilliant institution. And, we are a “family” of actors that deeply love one another. When I am playing a character with this much support, I find it is easy to have her beliefs and attitudes become my own. I do believe we can learn from every human on this planet and as I/Emily learn, there is always room to deepen and grow. At this point, because of my desire to live in her fully, there are no differences.