Performing Arts: Arena – A Very Political – Stage

by Chuck Conconi

Arena Stage reflects Washington politics.

A scene from "Camp David" (Photo by Margot Schulman)

A scene from “Camp David” (Photo by Margot Schulman)

The recent Arena Stage production of “The City of Conversation,” harkens back to a recent past when Washington power brokers would meet socially in one or other grand Georgetown residence to discuss and reach political decisions that had national, even world-wide ramifications.

That world of dynamic hostesses has mostly disappeared, but it was fun to look in on it in “The City of Conversation” on Arena’s Fichandler Stage and have some idea of what it might have been like to have been a player in that heady atmosphere. Arena, under the direction of Molly Smith, has taken the lead in looking at and dramatizing some of the more recent political events that have impacted Washington and the world, because what happens here reverberates elsewhere.

“Since coming to Washington to lead Arena Stage nearly 20 years ago, I have searched fiercely for D.C.’s voice in theater. I’ve become convinced that our unique voice is political. Politics is Washington and Washington is politics – it’s our red meat. It’s in our blood,” Smith explains.

“We are the city that loves to talk politics from the first moment waking up to when our heads hit the pillow. At Arena, audiences will see more plays and musicals on the politics of America” she adds. “What better place to make this happen than in our nation’s capital and at Arena Stage where we focus on American plays, American artists, and American ideas.”

Immediately following “The City of Conversation” Arena will stage “All the Way”, Robert Schenkkan’s 2014 Tony Award winning drama about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in the White House. No man epitomized Washington more than Johnson, who served in the House and Senate before becoming president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A masterful politician, he knew how to broker a deal even if he had to break a few arms accomplishing it, and become one of the most controversial and effective presidents in the 20th Century.

Two years ago, Arena staged “Camp David,” a look at the 12 days of secret negotiations in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter, played by Emmy Award winner Richard Thomas, brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the presidential retreat in Maryland where they reached an historic agreement that became known as the Camp David Accords. President Carter and his wife, Roselyn were there for the play’s opening night in Arena’s Kreeger Theater.

Arena’s political commitment was also evident last season when Smith staged and directed “The Originalist,” a play starring Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.The play was a smashing success with Gero, a four-time Helen Hayes Award winner, portraying the rigid, moralistic and often polarizing Scalia with sensitivity and understanding.

When Scalia’s death was announced, PBS reran a story they had produced at the time “The Originalist” was running. The story focused on Gero’s portrayal, how remarkably he resembled Scalia, and the coincidental fact that their two families had immigrated from two near-by Italian villages.

Next season Smith will be staging two other politically topical world premieres: “Roe,” about a young lawyer who argued the still controversial landmark Roe v.Wade before the Supreme Court; and “Intelligence,” about covert operative Valerie Plame, who was looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when her cover got blown, creating a media sensation.

Under Smith’s leadership, Arena, the 66-year-old grand dame in Southwest Washington, had an architectural rebirth in 2010 that contributes impressively to the massive renovations taking place along the waterfront. The imposing, modernistic structure houses Arena’s two theaters and the Kogod Cradle, a black box where newer works are tested.

The schedule for the 2016 season includes a diverse selection of plays such as Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” and “Watch on the Rhine;” Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking;” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel;” Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” as well as the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s unique acrobatic work on “Moby Dick”.

Emmy Award winning Marg Helgenberger of “CSI Crime Scene Investigation” will star in “Little Foxes,” and four-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Marsha Mason in “Watch on the Rhine.” Tony Award winner Kathleen Turner, who recently starred in “Mother Courage” at Arena will perform in Didion’s memoir.

This is the first of an irregular series looking at the significant and nationally respected Washington theatrical community. Chuck Conconi reviews Washington Theater for Washington Life on line.

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