Politics is like the weather: the only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability. It changes – and changes back, and changes again – with a speed that keeps us from ever getting too comfortable. On TV, especially, we track politics like we track the weather: streams and currents of hot and cold temperament swirling across the map of America. Who will be red today, and who will be blue?
Signature’s pushing the partisan angle on Joe Calarco’s world premiere, a tidy and entertaining little two-top comedy about a pair of women – strangers at the outset – delayed at Reagan National Airport during a terrible storm (the bad weather, true to convention, has an uncanny knack for priming some situational comedy). We are inclined to think the pairing will be an explosive one – even the show’s graphic art is locked in the red-versus-blue motif. But, mercifully, the script is stripped of the sort of tiresome, middlebrow punditry that permeates what we now let pass for primetime info-tainment. With rare exception, Calarco’s show steps nimbly around the pitfalls of ersatz stage politicking and sticks to its belief in a stranger theory: that people do, occasionally, listen to each other.
True, the boisterous Patty (Sherri L. Edelen) wears a fanny pack, reads Paula Deen’s magazine, and pours out her thoughts in a deep, syrupy drawl, while Margaret (Nancy Robinette) dutifully stands in as the prim, liberal cold front, preoccupied with her posture and lost deep in thoughts she’s taught herself not to share out loud. One drinks white wine and one drinks Coke – take a wild guess who’s who. We’re not outside the reach of stereotype, but it’s just enough to push off from, as the two women discuss their fears, their faith, the state of the world, and their children. Although the talk is commonplace at moments, it adds up to a poignant, simply-drawn glimpse into family, legacy, and some of the rougher textures that impact the next steps past middle age.
Credit goes, in no small part, to these two actresses. “To have Nancy and Sherri in the production is truly a dream fulfilled,” Calarco has said. “I wrote the play with the two of them in mind. Every word in the script was written to come out of their mouths.” And for a modest drama corralled into such a limited space – James Kronzer’s small, Sartrean set is merely the corner of the room, suitable only for sitting, standing, and pacing in circles – Edelen and Robinette bring to bear the big, smart performances we’ve come to expect of them.
For chatterbox Patti, silence is terminal, and Edelen shows impressive stamina as she warbles and whoops through some truly loony monologues. Often, trying to grab hold of her logic is like chasing a bar of wet soap around the shower. Good thing her hapless audience is Ms. Robinette, who has utterly mastered that look of pained, cautious disapproval which draws our sympathy immediately, and who, when she finally speaks, unpacks her thoughts with such studied intelligence that we’d be okay handing her control of the plane itself.
Both are proud women, who don’t expect to receive some shocking moral lesson. And, really, they don’t. But, true to life, by the end they’ve learned a bit, and this bit that sinks in proves more culturally enlightening than any far-flung walking tour they’ve ever taken. Calarco spares us too much forced symmetry – both characters are reminded of the need to listen, but one is better at it, and the other may or may not put in the effort to get there – so the payoff comes piecemeal, collected mainly from modest punchlines and the simple pleasure of watching two great actresses skim the watery line between the funny and the deeply serious.
Calling this an ideological match between red state and blue state seems a bit unfair. We deserve more than talking points from a good play and, thankfully, Walter Cronkite Is Dead retains that journalist’s love for legitimate dialogue. It’s sad that in the age of information, our worldviews remain so myopic and self-absorbed. But what a lovely moment when Patty first puts the offer on the table: Let’s talk. Robinette cautiously rises to full sitting position, prepared to engage. Edelen drops her shoulders and leans forward, relieved to drop the pretense. Even around one table, talking means completely different things: first something hot, then something cold, then something in-between.
Walter Cronkite Is Dead
Written and Directed by Joe Calarco
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
- Chris Klimek . Washington Examiner
- John Glass . DramaUrge
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Jordan Wright . Alexandria Times
- Paul Harris . Variety
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
- Ian Buckwalter . DCist
Terry Ponick . Washington Times
- Brad Hathaway . Arlington Connection
- Trey Graham . City Paper
Tom Avila . Metro Weekly
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Peter Marks . Washington Post