Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: Mommy Does Politics

Sometimes serendipity lines up so perfectly. Serendipity seemed to play a part for the politically charged drama Primary by Gracie Gardner. Not only is it appropriately timed in election season, this play is the 2016 winner of Project Playwright, an annual competition Sanguine Theatre Company holds where democracy declares their coming production. Primary transports the audience to the late 90s as an average mom declares she is running for State Representative in her Connecticut district.
Primary goes beyond the insult slinging negative campaigning and captures the familiar side of the race. Gardner's play is a political family drama that watches Laura Hollister enter herself, and thusly her family, into a political race that goes beyond local politics and into her morals. With a husband who opposes his wife's ambition, a daughter lost in the shuffle, and a young hustling campaign manager, Laura watches her life tumble before her eyes, only hoping she can reassemble the pieces. Primary was troubled at the very start. It was like a Jenga tower, the pieces weren't constructed perfectly and the tower was ready to topple after the first block was pulled. Gardner neatly sets up the pieces of her play but once the action sets off, questions arise, which many are left unanswered, and her characters go on unnatural journeys simply for conflict. Gardner bookends her story with daughter Sophie and her inhaler. We learn Sophie is an important cog in this story as the deep, deep heart of Laura's campaign is to help the public school system, which she pulled Sophie out of and subsequently put her back into thanks to campaign manager Nick. We learn Sophie has a few physical and mental problems. But Gardner makes such a strong telling of the inhaler that never quite gets discussed. Though Laura is the driving force of the play, Gardner seems to want to tell it through Sophie's eyes but it never really comes into fruition. Sophie has two magical moments via dream and Sailor Moon dressing montage but because the remainder of the play is so natural, these moments are incredibly jarring. Had the way they were introduced been cleaner, perhaps they would have worked. Primary is not necessarily a political play but more a play about family. Gardner uses the Bill Clinton sex scandal as a backdrop for her play. There are clear parallels between Bill, Hillary, Laura, and Arthur but they are a bit of a reach. Because there are strong themes of family, Gardner could have dove deeper into the backstory of this family. We see them in the present but know very little about who they are and why this moment is important or impractical for each. Laura makes a rash decision without trepidation or familiar consultation. Arthur doesn’t believe Laura made the right call and acts childish to prove his point, seeming to sabotage his wife. And then as parents, they seemed too immature to handle a child let alone a political campaign. In this production, it would appear that they had Sophie when they were quite young. Diving into that could explain and perhaps justify their actions. When it comes to the character of Nick, we learn very little about his story. We know that he failed to gain the seat Laura is running for but is that the true reason why he wants to be her campaign manager? Nick wasn’t passionate enough for redemption but he wasn’t scheming enough to be a true political shark. He lived in limbo.
photo by PJ Norton
For a play with a strong sense of family, creating a believable family was integral. It took some time to believe that Laura, Arthur, and Sophie were, in fact, a unit. But once you got into that, you began to see the true nature of each individual. With the exception of the wise beyond her years Sophie, these characters, in their own way, were the embodiment of politics. And they used those assets throughout. Whether it was through bribery or emotional manipulation, you could drop the trio adults into another political world like “House of Cards” or “Scandal”, though they’d very likely get eaten alive. As Laura, Jody Christopherson played into the hands of politics. Christopherson gave a performance like a manufactured politician that was artificially emotional. By the time Christopherson was about to give Laura any sense of humility, Gardner’s character was too far gone and completely unapologetic. Even when Nick grieves over his sacrifice, Laura doesn’t seem to care. It’s all about her. Brian Miskell’s Nick was pretentious. Nick was not the clearest written character but Miskell did what he could to give the character flavor. Kevin Argus tried to infuse some humor into Arthur. Doing so, Arthur had a man-child aura to him. He did have some sweet moments with Casey Nadzam’s Sophie. Regardless, Argus didn’t seem to find a voice or sense of reasoning for Arthur. His passive nature came across as weak.
In a play where the action is slow, director Alex Keegan did all she could to liven it up and find glimmers of excitement. Unfortunately they were few and far between. The Hollister home by scenic designer Matthew Imhoff fit the time and location but it was placed at a strange angle that felt unnatural. It wasn’t sharp nor was it flat so it longed to find an extreme. Costume designer Anna Winter did a fine job fitting the characters and avoided playing into the 90s gimmick. The only miss was the purple shirt on Laura. While red and blue do make purple, once in political mode, putting Laura in either color would have been more appropriate for the politician.
With a very slow build up of action, Primary lacks movement and strong characters. It can be hard to care about a situation if the stakes of reasoning are more selfish than for a genuine purpose. But hey, that’s politics! Like Laura Hollister, Gracie Gardner’s text didn’t seem ready.