Integrity. There’s a word used a great deal in political discourse, but infrequently seen in action. The 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsey, State of the Union, looks at how difficult it is for one to maintain their integrity when put through the wringers of the United States political system.
It’s 1946, or thereabouts, and the republican party wants control of the White House. They think they’ve found a great way to go about getting it: find a guy who falls outside of the political landscape — an everyday, respectable-type Joe whom the public will root for — and mold him for the next presidential candidate.
That Joe is Grant Matthews (Michael Dailey), an industry tycoon who prides himself in his straight-talking, no-nonsense dealings. With a built-in following, dashing smile and well-established reputation, he seems the perfect candidate. However, gossip has emerged that he’s having an affair with republican press mogul Kay Thorndike (Kristina Johnson), and his mentor, Republican strategist Jim Conover (BF Helman), insists he keeps up appearances by reuniting with his estranged wife, Mary (Kendra Thulin) before heading out on the road for a series of high-profile speeches.
Soon, Matthews finds himself pulled in many different directions to garner the necessary votes and political interests, and his straight-talking demeanor is chipped away. It’s Mary, who, despite despising her husband’s adulteress ways, remains infatuated and inspired by him, and gives Matthews the wakeup call he needs.
This is a classy production with a stellar cast. As well-meaning wife Mary, Thulin makes a very strong impression. Her Mary is smart and independent while layered with insecurity and vulnerability. She’s in love with a man who breaks her heart, but she can’t help herself from being his number one supporter. In the final act, she gets the opportunity to break out of the dutiful wife mold, and she brings it. Dailey also delivers, making it easy to see why America would root for him. I also enjoyed Johnson’s performance as the driven, scheming Ms. Thorndike. Who doesn’t love a good villain?
Of course the play is dated in its views on fidelity: i.e., the fact that no one seems to blame Matthews for his actions — in fact, they protect the mistress and blame the wife. But, that’s the way things were, no? And perhaps still are.
Strawdog’s unique space presents a challenge to any director and design team. Director Geoff Button and scenic designer Marianna Csaszar work hard to fit this traditional drama in the nontraditional space, and mostly succeed. However, there are more than few times the action is obstructed by odd angles. The Ikea furniture, though cloaked under throw pillows and blankets, was also slightly distracting. Joanna Melville’s costume designs (and whoever was responsible for the fabulous hair designs for the women) effectively transport you to the late ‘40s.
“State of the Union” plays through Nov. 13 at Strawdog Theatre Company. More info here >