Orange Girls sparkle in Wasserstein play

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

The Orange Girls, a resident theater company at COCA in University City is presenting a truly stunning production of Wendy Wasserstein’s play “An American Daughter”, about the nomination of a woman candidate to be Surgeon General of the United States.

The excellent production, skillfully directed by Christopher Limber and with a topnotch cast headed by Mary Schnitzler in the lead role of Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, completes the unprecedented presentation of three plays by the same playwright by three separate theater companies under the heading “Wendy City,” to pay tribute to Wendy Wasserstein, the brilliant, brainy and clever dramatist who died in January 2006 after a valiant, years-long battle with cancer.

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Previously, The New Jewish Theatre opened its 2006-2007 season at the Jewish Community Center with Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig”, and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presented Wasserstein’s most famous and enduring play, “The Heidi Chronicles”, about a feisty feminist art expert. And now The Orange Girls complete the retrospective of Wasserstein’s work with a truly glittering production of “An American Daughter”, less well-known than the other two works in the series, but which deserves greater exposure and recognition than it has received to date.

Loosely based on the series of failed or de-railed nominations by American Presidents of candidates for top federal jobs, “An American Daughter” focuses on the fictional nomination of a prominent and highly respected woman physician and professor of medicine, Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, a fifth generation descendant of President Ulysses S. Grant, and the son of a conservative U.S. Senator from Indiana, Alan Hughes, convincingly portrayed by Richard Lewis. Mary Schnitzler delivers a terrific performance as Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, a woman who seems “to have it all” as a highly successful medical professional, wife of a respected Professor of Sociology, Walter Abrahmson (David Wassilak, in a low-key, but convincing portrayal), and having good-natured support of her father, his fourth wife, Charlotte “Chubby” Hughes (Penney Kols in a multi-layered performance) and her best friend since childhood, Dr. Judith B. Kaufman, a cancer specialist and daughter of a 1960s civil rights marcher and his African-American wife.

Monica Parks is absolutely outstanding and totally believable in the complex and challenging role of Judith B. Kaufman, who is by turns brilliant, sarcastic, depressed, hostile, vulnerable and loving. Dr. Kaufman is frustrated that her medical prowess can neither “start life or stop death.” She is desperate to become pregnant through artificial insemination and deeply frustrated by repeated failed attempts. She and Lyssa Dent Hughes have been best friends since their parents sent them to an exclusive boarding school shortly after Lyssa’s birth mother died when she was only 14.

Wasserstein’s special brilliance as a dramatist shines through nearly every line in the crackling script. Set in 1995, the topical references somehow do not seem as oddly dated as those in “The Heidi Chronicles” and “The Sisters Rosensweig”. Indeed, many of the references are still quite current — Jim Lehrer is still host of The News Hour on PBS; Katie Couric, then with The Today Show now does the CBS Evening News, and many of the intellectual, political and power-playing events in the story could very well be happening today. Wasserstein’s plays tend to be dense, jam-packed and somewhat longish, but under the deft direction of Christopher Limber and with the strength of the performances, the attention of the audience is held through the two acts.

Another standout performance is that of Colleen Backer as Quincy Quince, who seems based in part on Naomi Wolf, the feminist author of The Beauty Myth and other popular books in the mid- and late 1990s, who served for a time as a consultant to the Al Gore campaign, trying to make him over into more of an “alpha male.” Jeffrey Wright is excellent as Morrow McCarthy, a gay neo-conservative self-described “best friend” to Dr. Hughes and her husband, but whose insatiable need to score the best verbal point can cause real pain. Joe Hanrahan is a good choice to play Timber Tucker, a generic anchor of a Dateline NBC-style interview show, whose manipulative questions can destroy a career as he smiles on.

Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter”, ahead of its time, exposes the depths to which many of our political and journalistic actions have sunk. The 24/7 cable news cycle assures that even the most trivial incident will have an incredibly long and repeated screen life. A remark made out of context or Dr. Hughes’s seemingly minor failure to report for jury duty some years earlier, can be overnight turned into a career-wrecking “Jury-gate.” The feeding frenzy of the media, their cadre of smug and saracastic ideologically driven pundits like the Morrow McCarthy character, the instant author-celebrities like Quincy Quince milking her “15 minutes of fame” for all its worth, and the fickle and feckless nature of what passes for political decision-making in Washington are all brilliantly exposed in “An American Daughter”. People, their careers and private lives are distorted by media hype, “spin-meisters,” exemplified by the character Billy Robbins (Joel Lewis in an amusing, disturbing portrayal), and the destruction of personal lives that result from these realities are brought into sharp focus in “An American Daughter”.

At the end of the day, as pundits nowadays are fond of saying, Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes is much more than a convenient symbol of a highly successful professional Mom who “has it all.” She is an admirable but flawed human being, as is her hapless husband, who falls victim to Quincy Quince’s seductions.

Suprisingly, there are more direct Jewish references in “An American Daughter” than in either “The Heidi Chronicles” or The Sisters Rosensweig. Dr. Judith Kaufman takes her Jewishness very seriously, and a running sub-plot involves her participation in a tashlit ceremony of repentence, in which Jews cast bread upon water to atone for their sins. She speaks about her becoming a bat mitzvah and of her loyal attendance at synagogue, but comes to prefer the “reliable variables of science” as a guide to life. Walter Abrahmson, Lyssa Hughes’s husband, who nicknames her “Lizard,” recalls that at his bar mitzvah he decided, “Today I am a man; tomorrow I will be an agnostic.” The Jewishness of Professor Abrahmson is evaluated by the Billy Robbins character, who decides that it should “be played down” in press interviews to assure that it won’t threaten the nomination.

All in all, The Orange Girls production of “An American Daughter”, along with the NJT’s earlier presentation of “The Sisters Rosensweig” and The Rep’s presentation of “The Heidi Chronicles” truly confirms Wendy Wasserstein, who died much too soon in January of 2006, as one of most gifted playwrights of the last half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. “An American Daughter” is a superb example of Wasserstein’s best work, and deserves a large audience throughout its run.

(“An American Daughter”, presented by The Orange Girls resident theater company at COCA in the Anheuser-Busch Black Box Theatre at COCA, 524 Trinity Avenue (former site of B’nai Amoona) in University City, is appearing through Sunday, July 29; weekend evening performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For information or to reserve tickets call 314-520-9557, or visit the Web site at www.orangegirls.org)

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