Most people celebrate anniversaries with a party, or at least a cake. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has done something much more far-reaching. To note its 40th season, the company has commissioned a new play. Smart move; smart script.
Ordinary Nation, by Washington University playwright-in-residence Carter W. Lewis, turns out to be as relevant as last week's headlines not because it's set against the backdrop of a U.S. Senate campaign, but rather because when a World Series pitcher can get caught cheating red-handed, win the game anyway and then be widely defended by those who see nothing wrong with his deception, a play that confronts 21st-century morality is not only immediate but needed.
There's a lot of gambling, cheating and getting caught in Ordinary Nation. Ostensibly the story plays out in "a Midwestern city," but it's really set "in the realm of ethics." The plot evokes ripples from morality tales like Arthur Miller's All My Sons and, more recently, the Kevin Kline film The Emperor's Club. But unlike those more clear-cut dramas, Ordinary Nation steers its own course by telling us things we might not want to hear. No surprise, perhaps, that Lewis' conservative political candidate is all showy surface. But the show's protagonist, a former liberal activist turned economics professor, is equally unappealing. Nation Jones is so haplessly hesitant that he makes Hamlet seem like a go-to guy. The America Lewis chronicles is so corrosive that being ethical is no longer enough to get you through the day. Conservative? Liberal? By play's end a viewer might want to echo Romeo and Juliet's Mercutio, who in his death throes spits out, "A plague o' both your houses."
For a story with just five characters, there's a lot of plot here. In a nutshell, the Jones family is falling apart. "We're in a horrible situation," sixteen-year-old Frankie despairs and she's right. Despite his teaching gig, Dad (Gregory Northrop) is broke; Mom (Angela Reed), who feels that she needs "a stronger world around me," has flown the coop. It's not enough that she's taken to churchgoing; now she's fallen in love with her boss, the city's mayor (Curt Hostetter), who is running for the U.S. Senate. Grandpa (George Bartenieff) is an inept bookie "in debt up to his hearing aid." Everyone keeps telling Frankie that life's problems are not so simple, yet she knows they are.
Clearly we're dealing in metaphors here. (How many people do you know whose first name is Nation?) Yet the play can only succeed if we care about the metaphors as individuals. What intrigues most is the very human estrangement between Nation and his wife, married for twenty years and perhaps still in love even as we slowly come to realize that, like the nation itself, they are polarized beyond understanding, much less healing.
Director Andrea Urice had her hands full trying clarify rapid-fire dialogue whose gambling lexicon is not easily accessible to the lay viewer. But an even more immediate concern should have been the portrayal of conservative candidate Gibb Aston, who simply has no sense of occupation. We never see this man actively engaged in running for the U.S. Senate. (Even his campaign buttons look fake, which is not the Rep's style.) The script is burdened with far too many lines on the order of "Why don't we talk?" and "Why don't we sit?" Although Aston should be a character for whom talking and sitting is far too costly, he comes across as a man with time on his hands. The result is that the evening's high stakes are lessened. It's left to Dana Acheson as the irrepressible Frankie to push forward the momentum. But as engagingly energetic as Acheson is, she has begun to mature beyond that younger generation of roles like Anne Frank and (the other) Frankie in The Member of the Wedding. You'll have to determine for yourself if you accept Acheson as a sixteen-year-old.
Ordinary Nation is not a flawless production. But there's a great deal to be said for imperfection, especially in an evening as questioning as this one. At a time when morality and ethics seem to be taking a back seat to expediency, it's refreshing to hear someone ask why.