BENNINGTON >> In a year which could produce the ugliest election campaign in American history, Oldcastle Theatre Company kicked off its run of Anthony Giardina's "The City of Conversation," a timely production attempting ideological backdrop as the catalyst toward more deep, human themes of family.
The show is directed by Oldcastle producing artistic director Eric Peterson, who always likes to say "the best American plays are about family."
That's what this play is about, once clear of some of Giardina's impulses. The action takes place over several generations in Washington, D.C., starting in 1979 and ending on President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration.
Liberal socialite Hester Ferris (Nan Mullenneaux) works hard through her Georgetown dinner parties to influence votes on the Hill for pet causes. She lives with sister and accomplice Jean (Christine Decker), and often is joined by her lover, the married Senator Chandler Harris (Bill Tatum).
Hester's son Colin (Christopher Restino) shows up after college with a conservative world view, along with his ambitious Reaganite girlfriend Anna (Meredith Meurs). Joining eventually are GOP Senator George Malonee (Richard Howe) and wife Carolyn (Jody June Schade).
Young Tyler Schade plays Ethan at age 6, Colin and Anna's son. Restino assumes the role at age 27. Ethan's adult partner Donald (Brandon Rubin) comes in late.
The acting was outstanding. Tyler Schade was believably good as young Ethan, and Rubin played an energetic Donald in his attempt to pull history together.
Jody June Schade was lovely as Carolyn, complete with seductive Southern accent and come-hither glances, grins and facial expressions. Howe, as her senator husband was brash and jovial, spoiling us yet again with superior character acting.
Bill Tatum's Harris regally held himself between deal-making and fool-making, and his lechery broiled under the surface intensely. Decker's role was small as Jean, but like Howe, the woman can act, and play anyone.
Mullenneaux as Hester was incomparable in fleshing out the high points of the Big Society struggle. Her own zenith was as the aged and forgotten matriarch at play's end, when she superbly convinced as far older than the start.
It's a shame Giardina felt the need to force both Hester and Anna into stump speeches with every transition – an inherent flaw in the script, and nothing Mullenneaux or Meurs could do with them.
To that end, Meurs was utterly contemptible as Anna, which was exactly the point, and outstanding acting. But Giardina stereotyped Anna to such a degree that the character's development ceased to evolve into anything but caricature as the play progressed.
This might have been Christopher Restino's finest hour. As both Colin and later as Ethan at age 27, he was a tour de force. We wanted to follow him around the stage, waiting for his next utterance. Restino's performance was sublime, and his older Ethan brought tears around the entire house.
The play ran around two hours, 15 minute intermission included. There were a few line hesitations, not uncommon on opening night, but they should be no problem going forward. And the excellent stage manager Diane Healy will undoubtedly keep her crew from crossing the stage background late, as one runner did after the lights brightened and second act dialogue had begun.
Carl Sprague's set was expansive, and marvelously designed. Lights and sound by Cory Wheat hit all the marks, and Ursula McCarty's ever-changing period costumes showed why she is a master of the craft – especially Anna's 1979 number.
Peterson is right: plays about family resonate, and if there was a dry eye after the closing scene, I'd be surprised. Coming from a Greek family with its share of heartbreaks as in this play, I could relate completely.
Still, the lengths to which Giardina made partisan ideology the catalyst for domestic rupture and subsequent triumphalism is believable only to an extent, and I say this having grown up in a scaldingly-charged European political environment.
Specifically, he goes too far in his paradigm of contrast by predictably morphing Hester into Batman to Anna's Joker. It's excessively tidy moralizing – and life hardly ever is. For messier ideological introspection, see Wendy Wasserstein's "Third."
Giardina also leaves one wondering how the perennial argument – already prominent in this year's campaign - for women as peacemakers and compromisers over men would fare using this play as a barometer. Not very well, I'm afraid to report.
Perhaps, then, we should look to 27-year-old Ethan, who is true to his causes but sees past the story's sometimes-Marvel Comics dynamics. Ethan rightfully demands to know how things could possibly have gone so downhill over something like, well, winning a vote.
For the self-examination this play prompts, along with exceptional acting, Oldcastle's "City of Conversation" is a most worthy production to see, especially in this election year when Americans are already finding themselves in a surreal comic strip of their own making.
"The City of Conversation" will run through Aug. 21 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. For tickets and info call 802-447-0564 or visit: oldcastletheatre.org.
— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics' Association (ATCA)