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.
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
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.
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
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
Carousel was the second musical produced by the dynamic team of Rodgers and Hammerstein following their ground breaking Oklahoma! If audiences expected another feel good show, they were surprised. Carousel is based on Liliom, a somber 1909 play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. A failure when it was first staged in Hungary, Liliom fared better when it was produced on Broadway in 1921. Carousel, which opened on Broadway in 1945, received positive reviews and has since been revived numerous times. Carousel’s themes of forgiveness, healing, and redemption always seem to hit home. In that respect, Arena’s new production couldn’t come at a better time.
Despite the photos in Arena’s ads, there’s no actual carousel on the Fichandler circular stage. Indeed, Todd Rosenthal’s set design is rather sparse, with a floor of whitewashed wood and crates that are frequently rearranged depending upon the scene. The orchestra is housed in a gazebo, above the stage, while the music director, Paul Sportelli, waves his baton from a spot below the stage. Except for glowing stars in the second act, there are no props. The actors mime drinking coffee, playing the accordion, playing cards, digging clams, and picking up garbage. Without extraneous distractions, our attention stays focused on the players and their stories.
Billy Bigelow is a barker for a carnival in small town Maine. With his roughish good looks, Billy has no trouble attracting women, most of whom work in the local mill and come to ride the carousel for entertainment. He’s an alpha male and an irresistible draw for the shy and inexperienced Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan). Nicholas Rodriguez, his black fedora tipped at a jaunty angle, brings to mind a young Sinatra, who was originally cast as Billy in the film. Billy and Julie assess their growing attraction in one of the musical’s best known songs, “If I Loved You,” a sweet moment that, unfortunately, sets up expectations that will never be met after the two are married. Billy is caught between two women; Julie, and Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler), who not only owns the carnival, but acts like she owns Billy, too. When he defies her order to leave Julie and get back to work, she fires him. Julie, too, loses her job after missing her shift at the factory, choosing to stay with Billy at the carnival.
Betsy Morgan and Kate Rockwell
Julie’s good friend, Carrie (an exuberant Kate Rockwell), also has a boyfriend (Kurt Boehm). Rockwell’s heartfelt tribute to her beau, “Mister Snow,” glosses over his shortcomings. When I marry Mister Snow/ The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees. Neither woman hits the romance jackpot. Billy, beset by job and financial setbacks, will take his anger out on Julie, abusing her psychologically and actually hitting her at one point. (While some productions have downplayed this aspect of domestic violence, Director Molly Smith wisely recognizes that it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away.) Enoch Snow isn’t abusive, but he’s a control freak, seething with jealously. When he catches Carrie dancing with another man, he quickly breaks off their relationship. They reunite after Carrie desperately pleads with him.
For Billy, the turning point comes when Julie tells him she’s pregnant. Contemplating fatherhood, Billy is overjoyed. Rodriguez literally stops the show, his strong baritone delivering an emotional “Soliloquy.” You can have fun with a son/But you gotta be a father to a girl. Eager to provide for his child, Billy gives in to pressure from his shiftless friend, Jigger (a very convincing Kyle Schliefer), to rob the mill’s owner, David Bascombe (Thomas Adrian Simpson). The whole town is celebrating with a clam bake, and Billy and Jigger attend, using the event as a cover for eventually leaving and staging the holdup. Billy carries a knife that he plans to use to threaten Bascombe, not kill him. But when the plan goes awry, Billy opts to kill himself rather than face the possibility of prison. Julie holds Billy as he’s dying and finally whispers what she has never told him, “I love you.” Julie is comforted by her cousin, Nettie, played by Ann Arvia, delivering a gosse-bump-inducing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Now on the other side, Billy tries in vain to gain admittance to heaven, arguing with heavenly friend (Nicole Wildy) that he wants to see “The Highest Judge of All.” His one chance is to return to earth and try to redeem himself. Fifteen years have passed. Billy’s daughter, Louise, is now a teenager, and not a happy one, bullied by classmates about her criminal father. Skye Mattox’s Louise displays her hurt and passion in a dance sequence that is both sad and beautiful. It’s an exquisite piece of choreography by Parker Esse, with a tour de force performance by Mattox. She’s now on our radar.
Everything comes together in the end. Julie somehow feels Billy’s presence and knows that he did truly love her. Louise understands that her father’s mistakes are not hers and that her life is truly her own. And Billy’s visit to earth, where he makes himself visible to Louise, comforts her, and gives her a star, is enough to gain him admittance to heaven.
Kudos to costume designer Ilona Somogyi and wig designer Anne Nesmith for creating a period look that was both aesthetically pleasing and wonderful to look at without distracting from the performances.
Rodgers and Hammerstein never shied away from tackling important and, at times, controversial issues in their musicals. Oklahoma! has upbeat songs, but also deals with political and cultural issues that erupted between farmers and cattlemen. South Pacific and The King and I confront racism. Great musicals endure because at their core they have powerful messages that encourage us to be better than we are. Carousel does that. And it’s a message we need to hear now. Go see it.
Photos by Maria Baranova Top photo Betsy Morgan and Nicholas Rodriguez
Carousel Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW Through December 24, 2016
“Call me Ishmael.” The first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of the most memorable in literature. Published in 1851, the novel’s themes – obsession, greed, duty, friendship, and, of course, death – remain relevant. Two films have depicted the face off between man and whale, the 1956 version directed by John Huston, with Gregory Peck as the ship’s Captain Ahab, and 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, with Chris Helmsworth as first mate, Owen Chase.
This holiday season theatergoers in Washington, D.C. will experience something totally different – a stage version that uses daring trapeze and acrobatic work, rather than computer generated special effects, to recreate Melville’s spell-binding story. The production is the brainchild of David Catlin, a founding ensemble member of Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. After runs in Chicago and Atlanta, Moby Dick will play in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre from November 18 through December 24. The set, designed by Courtney O’Neill, includes a portion of the ship’s deck and what mimics a whale ribcage as the ship’s masts. As much action takes place above the stage as on it, as the actors climb, twirl, swing, and hang from the rigging.
According to Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith, “The story just doesn’t come alive in this production, it flies in the air all around you. Prepare to be amazed.”
While there are only two minor female figures in the novel, the stage version includes three actresses, whose characters are identified ominously as “Fate.” We had the opportunity to ask these actresses – Kelley Abell, Cordelia Dewdney, and Kasey Foster – about the production and their roles.
“I actually saw an earlier version of this production at Northwestern University before hearing about it,” said Foster. “When I saw the women playing the powerful role of Fate, I fell in love.” Abell called the play’s women, “pretty essential and antithetical to the men: the force that gives life, and that which takes it away.”
What do the women as Fate represent? “One could see the women as representing the whale, but as an actor I prefer to perceive that, as a Fate, I have the power to become the very things that influence the sailors,” said Dewdney. “Thus, the Fates create and control the inevitable, but are simultaneously swallowed up by the inevitable themselves.” Added Abell, “It’s a nice dichotomy we get to play with: human characters who create actual emotional or intellectual obstacles to the men – and the metaphors that haunt and drive them.”
Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Cordelia Dewdney as Fate
Dewdney said she first read Moby Dick for an American literature class her freshman year in college. “I had a wonderful teacher who dressed up as the characters or writers of the books we were reading, and for Moby she donned all white!” she said. “I was most struck by unstoppable movement of the storyline. The writing has a unique circuitous path that, no matter how many winding twists it takes, always falls to the chase of the men’s inevitable fates.”
Abell said she first listened to Moby Dick on tape while driving to and from high school. “I was struck by the incredibly detailed descriptions that fill the book, the minutia of rigging and whale parts and hooping spare barrels, the monotony of those mundane tasks that made up a whaler’s life,” she said. “At 18, I think I was frustrated at how little happened in the book, you know, where’s the romance, where’s the intrigue, where are the women, but coming back to the story as an adult, I see my own fixation on the small details of my life that Melville so beautifully captured. The minutia is the stuff that makes up a life, is it not?”
After a performance in Atlanta, the actors met with a group of high school students and one young woman offered her interpretation, that “man can become so swept up in his pursuit of x – money, fortune, fame, power – that he loses perspective, that he loses sight of his own human purpose, and that he forsakes his connection with humanity in the wake of his frenzy,” said Abell. “I wish we could bring her along as a spokesperson!”
Dewdney noted that while the play illustrates the prejudice and racism that existed during Melville’s time, Moby Dick is also about friendship, including the close bond that exists between Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, and Ishmael, a white sailor. “Once they leave the society that separates them, they find that the ship binds them,” observed Foster. Abell said that early in the play, Ahab invites the men – “Pagans and Christians alike” – to be equals. “I see the quality of the diverse crew as essential to our production,” she said. “But it feels more about what it is to be essentially human, those truths which resonate most deeply.”
The actors prepared for their physically demanding roles by working with instructors from Chicago’s Actors Gymnasium. “Many of us came into the production with dance or physical theatre training, but many of the circus elements were very new to me,” said Abell. “In Act 2, the women are incorporated into a straps routine, including a trick which took me countless failed attempts to master. Turns out that quick thinking while spinning in mid-air is not something that comes as easily to me as panic does. Cordelia [Dewdnwy] has the most circus tricks of us all – and she handles them all like a true pro.”
In addition, the three women had to learn to work together as a team, since they are often moving together, ostensibly, in the sea, perhaps representing the whale. “These are some amazing women I work with who both think and work deeply and honestly,” said Abell. “During rehearsals we had some time to work as a trio – how to move as one unit, how to sing as one unit, how to feel cohesive as the `Fate’ of all these men. We’ve become experts with peripheral vision and speaking at the same time.”
The production has received rave reviews wherever it has been staged. “Oh, we are so curious [to see how audiences in D.C. react],” said Abell. What they do know is that the story of one man’s relentless pursuit of a whale continues to resonate. “One of the hardest things to do in this life, is to `let go’,” said Foster. “Whether loosening your grip on the way things used to be, or letting go of a loved one, the concept of moving on often feels impossible. Ahab has a grip, stronger than anyone, and it brings him to his death. Everyone can relate to Ahab, because we all understand the feeling of holding on too firmly.”
Moby Dick Lookingglass Theatre Company Adapted and dirceted by David Caitlin from the book by Herman Melville Co-production with the Alliance Theatre and South Coast Repertory Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater 1101 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3300 November 18 through December 24, 2016
Photos by Greg Mooney Top photo: Kasey Foster as Fate
“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
When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1011 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3000