Chicago Theatre Review
A House Divided
The City of Conversation – Northlight Theatre
Henry James, the great American author, called Washington D.C. “the city of conversation” upon discovering that, outside of the political scene, there was a community of dynamic, movers and shakers who were able to make contacts and actually have some influence on governmental matters. Playwright Anthony Giardina borrows this phrase as his title. He sets his play, which premiered in 2014 at Lincoln Center, in the heart of our nation’s capital amid this counter culture. His story is witty, intelligent and often enlightening. Most audiences will mostly enjoy how smartly the story becomes exciting and rises up with conflict among the characters. His play expertly demonstrates how power transitions, not only in the White House, but among that secret community responsible for aiding the cause of their candidates.
The play opens in 1979 as Jimmy Carter is being challenged by the new popularity of Ronald Reagan. Hester Ferris (a fiercely strong Lia D. Mortensen), is a woman who has hobnobbed around with the Kennedy clan and is one of these behind-the-scenes players. She hosts Georgetown dinners and cocktail parties for her political friends, probing their minds and dropping not-so-subtle hints about her agenda. She makes no bones about her liberal allegiances. So when her grownup son Colin (a convincing Greg Matthew Anderson) accidentally arrives a day early, with his conservative Republican girlfriend Anna (a savvy Mattie Hawkinson) in tow, the fur begins to fly.
Anna sidles up, first to Hester, then to her widowed sister Jean (marvelously portrayed by Natalie West), and finally to Hester’s dinner guests, Kentucky Senator George and his wife Carolyn Mallonee (Tim Monsion and Elaine Rivkin). She even flirts politically with Hester’s live-in lover, Chandler Harris (played with dignity and strength by Tim Decker). The effect isn’t lost on Hester, who glares at Anna and likens her performance to the fawning young brown-nosing Miss Harrington in “All About Eve.” Eventually the reason for Colin and Anna’s early arrival becomes obvious, and soon Hester finds herself living in a house divided, much like the political scene. Against her advice, Anna and Colin marry and have a son whom Hester, now a grandmother, cares for within her home. When six-year-old Ethan (fine young actor, Tyler Kaplan) begins to pick up some of Hester’s progressive ideas and names, and Hester’s letter supporting a liberal judge is discovered by Anna, the stakes become raised and the boy is used as a pawn to further divide the family.
Directed by Marti Lyons, with a brisk sense of the drama that personal history creates, this production is entertaining and smart. While its political setting may not appeal to everyone, it’s the family conflict that will speak to most theatergoers. Almost every home has seen its own house divided between members who’ve harbored and proclaimed different viewpoints than the parents. This conflict speaks loudest to most patrons, and thus the second act resonates strongest with audiences. The concluding act is set years later on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration. A grownup Ethan (also played by Anderson), and his partner Donald (nicely played by Brian Keys), both far more liberal than Hester expects, reunites with his grandmother and reveals some surprises of his own that brings this story full circle.
Played upon a beautiful, classically appointed Georgetown living room setting, designed by Tom Burch, and featuring smart, period appropriate costumes by Sally Dolembo, this drama is brought to life by Marti Lyons and her talented cast. It’s enlightening, entertaining and, especially in its second act, exciting. The final act pretty much brings the play to its expected conclusion, but it’s a satisfying ending to an evening of personal conflicts.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 15-October 23 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.