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With the approach of the 2008 Presidential Election, a timely production of the 1946 play State of the Union by Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse is appearing at the Deep Dish Theater at University Mall in Chapel Hill. Lindsey and Crouse, playwrights who shared one of the longest collaborations in American Theater, gave us such classics as Arsenic and Old Lace, Life with Father, and the book to The Sound of Music. In Union, the two are attempting to show the behind-the-scenes subterfuge that goes on during the electoral process — and they succeed all too well.
Union is without doubt a comedy, and some of the lines are absolute classics and superbly original. But we find ourselves wondering if we are laughing so hard because it’s funny, or simply because it is all-too-familiar. Having been front-row observers to an all-too-lengthy pre-nomination process for the past two years, we find that the facts, at least as Lindsey and Crouse present them, are way too true for this to be coincidence. It becomes clear that we are learning that politics — despite the 60-year span between the Truman-Dewey bout and the bout for the presidency in 2008 — have changed hardly a fraction in all that time.
Paul Frellick, artistic director for Deep Dish Theater Company and adapter as well as director for this show, gives us a production that has everything going for it, principally that it is both a tremendously well-written work and, in this case, tremendously well-cast. Despite a quite large cast — 17 characters — Deep Dish gives us a superb lineup headlined by some of the most recognized names in Triangle theater. The romantic leads in this cast are David zum Brunnen as Grant Matthews, a dynamic businessman being pressured to run for office, and Jeri Lynn Schulke as his estranged wife, Mrs. Mary Matthews, the woman who would be his First Lady.
The impetus behind Grant’s run for the White House is a triumvirate of Republican bigwigs, none of whom are politicians: Jim Conover (Jordan Smith), a Republican mogul and man with his finger on the pulse of the nation; Spike MacManus (Larry Evans), a political journalist and Conover’s ace henchman; and Mrs. Kay Thorndyke (Susannah Hough), the owner of a chain of right-leaning newspapers and, incidentally, Grant Matthews’ mistress.
The set is classic in its structure and, as it turns out, a bear of a beast to manage, as designer Lisa Tireman gives us a static backdrop but a succession of four different rooms. To accommodate this, she designed the center backdrop to rotate, in order to accommodate set changes. Friday night, it refused, and came right out of its tracks — fortunately at a break for intermission. The intrepid crew had it repaired well before Act II, and it behaved for the rest of the show. It was the only smudge on an otherwise stellar production.
So, what is the result when a superbly written play is combined with an equally superb cast? Fireworks. From the very first scene, the cast creates a rising sense of tension, progression, and near-exemplary character development. While zum Brunnen moves from a man who isn’t at all sure he even wants to run, to a man bent on the prize, Schulke gives us the performance of the night in a character that goes from her intro as the villain to her exit as the woman behind the man. While our triumvirate remains the same, essentially, in their wish to regain the White House and nominate this man for the job, they all begin, subtly but irreversibly, to learn that this may not be their candidate after all. Along the way, we meet the movers and shakers that will be the muscle behind getting this man nominated and, hopefully, elected. Twelve lesser characters get lead-role characterizations by a septet of actors, five of whom play dual roles.
Margaret Jemison gives us Jim Conover’s long-time, indispensable maid, Norah, in Act I and the formidable Grace Draper in Act III, truly a woman, even in Fifties politics, to be reckoned with. Curt Kirkhoff is the aren’t-I-indispensable? bellhop in Act II, but another political bigwig, Bill Hardy (!), in Act III. Charles Ebert is both a local, Midwestern politico and a Senator at Act III’s dinner party; Jim Roman plays both a local fat cat and a Judge in the final act. And Holmes Morrison gives us two roles, a man from the farm contingent in Illinois and the Matthews’ much-put-upon butler, Williams, in Act III. Rounding out the cast is Thom Gradisher as Sam Parrish, a man who has big dreams and a mouth to match, and Sharlene Thomas as a comical but overbearing woman, wife to Judge Alexander, who insists she is a Democrat — a Southern Democrat, true, but a Dem nonetheless. Together, this wall of “supporters” almost drives poor Grant to distraction.
State of the Union is a classic in almost every definition. Sixty years after its creation, it is a mirror of national politics and one great big pinprick in the balloon of rising ascension in the political process, the one once decided by men in smoke-filled rooms and no-one-must-know intrigue. With a cast that seems a hand-in-glove fit to these roles and one very dynamic script, this is a play that, especially now, is still very relative to current events and extremely entertaining. With a set that harkens back to the tried-and-true proscenium years and costumes that make us dream of the Forties, every single aspect of this play is crisp, tight, and bound to please, right down to the music — straight off the radio, a magnificent necessity to the pre-television age of politics-as-usual. If you are a fan of classic theater, or especially if you are unfamiliar with it, this play will make you remember the good old days. Deep Dish Theater Company turns back the clock and makes us love it, even if it is about, you know, the P-word.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents State of the Union Thursday, Feb. 21 and 28 and March 6, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Feb. 22-23, Feb. 29-March 1, and March 7-8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 24 and March 2, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 for students and $14 for seniors), except $7 at the door on “Cheap Dish Night”on Feb. 21st. 919/968-1515 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Note: Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=8290. Internet Movie Database: http://imdb.com/title/tt0040834/.