By: Russell Crouse and Howard Lindsey
Directed by: Geoff Button
Strawdog Theatre Company, Chicago
The Strawdog Theatre Company has revived the 1946 Pulitzer Prize winning play, State of the Union. (The show was also popularized by Frank Capra’s 1948 film adaptation starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.)
The story, a political satire set shortly after World War II, is a behind the scenes look at the “play ball” mentality in politics during the advent of our post-war golden age. We follow Grant Matthews (played by Michael Dailey), a successful airplane industrialist with a passion, and a concern, for America’s well being. A Republican by name, yes, but Grant is more of a centralized, bi-partisan, do-gooder that looks to destroy the obstacles both parties present to the growth of the country.
The show opens at the home of Republican strategist James Conover (played by BF Helman), where Grant is urged to run for the presidency. Conover, a politician with deep ulterior motives, looks to exploit Grant’s ideals and use him as a poster boy to strengthen his own interests, and the interests of the Republican party. Flanked by a gumshoe reporting/PR expert Spike MacManus (played by Anderson Lawfer) and bombshell blonde newspaper magnate Kay Throndyke, (played by Kristina Johnson), Grant succumbs to Conovers’ advances and decides to start the presidential grooming process, but under his own terms. Grant, naïve to the politico back-scratching process, soon learns that making it to high office requires the appeasing of delegates, not forward thinking. Sound familiar? The story is a time less dissection of how the political process really works. It seems as the more things change, the more they stay the same. But that wasn’t what really intrigued me.
We learn early on in the story that Grant and Kay have been having an affair during a separation from Grants wife Mary, (played by Kendra Thulin). A taboo issue in the forties for sure. In fact many were outraged that writers Crouse and Lindsey received a Pulitzer Prize for a story with such adult subject matter. Going back to “how things stay the same”, back-door politics and infidelity were just as prevalent then as they are now. They just didn’t talk about it. Sorry for digressing.
In order to hit the campaign trail, or the foundation that is laid before it rather, Grant must summon his wife to Washington and convince her that she needs to be there by his side for a tour speeches he must make. (single men don’t get votes)The constant conflict between Grant’s non-conformist political ideals versus the political machine is juxtaposed well with the conflict he shares with Mary and his marriage.
From a performance standpoint, the show seemed under rehearsed. There were several misfires in the dialogue, which can be chalked up to opening night jitters. But what really concerned me were the wooden deliveries most of the cast gave. They just didn’t have the comedic timing or force that is really needed to serve this story, although Lawfer’s Spike did bring some truly funny moments that the audience reacted favorably to.
The saving grace of this show is Thulin’s Mary. Thulin seemed most at ease with her character, and as a result put out a truly authentic performance. In fact, when she was performing I saw her in black and white, while the others were in Technicolor.
For a period piece, Strawdog was on top of the stage settings and the costumes, but again there clearly needs to be some polishing in the timing department. I think once Button assesses opening night at the next rehearsal, and gets his cast comfortable, this show will improve.
John B. Reinhardt
Date Reviewed: 10/10/10
For full show information, check out the State of the Union page at TheatreInChicago.
Strawdog Theatre / 3829 N. Broadway Chicago / $20 (group, industry, student, and senior discounts available) / Running time approximately 160 minutes with 2 intermissions/ October 10th thru November 13th / Friday 8pm, Saturday 4pm/8pm, Sunday 7pm