David Edgar's Balancing Act

By Kaiden, Elizabeth | American Theatre, October 2003 | Go to article overview

David Edgar's Balancing Act


Kaiden, Elizabeth, American Theatre


David Edgar is playing for both sides. I'm not talking about Republicans and Democrats, although his new double-header Continental Divide does offer perspectives from both political camps. No, the divide that Edgar is straddling is theatre's classic modernist split. He's mapped out a meandering polemical anti-opera, a la Brecht, for the Democrats, and a Chekhovian domestic drama driven by irresolvable tensions for the Republicans. Edgar's subject, in both cases, is the degeneration of democracy in the U.S. in general and of the American electoral process in particular.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival of Ashland and California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre are co-producing the premiere of Edgar's sprawling disquisition on American politics. Staged with sophisticated and exciting multimedia dimensions by Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep, the two plays, Daughters of the Revolution and Mothers Against, ran through mid-July in Ashland. Revised versions will hit Berkeley Nov. 6-Dec. 28. Taccone, who is the same age as the playwright (55) and shares his political sensibility, says he found his way into Continental Divide through Chekhov and Brecht.

Like the Democrats and the Republicans, Taccone suggests, those two iconic playwrights share more cultural baggage than either would comfortably admit before a jury of their peers. First and foremost, the works of both resound with mourning--for lost ideals, for a decaying way of life, for a diminished humanity. Edgar shares this sense of loss, and it is on that common ground that the writer and director have based their dual productions.

Edgar is best known stateside as the author of the widely produced drama Pentecost, as well as the epic Nicholas Nickleby that captivated Broadway audiences in the '80s. Though he is thoroughly English, the playwright feels an investment in the idea of the United States. He explains: "I think the American dream is one of the two great transformative mythologies of the 20th century, the other being communism." Edgar was 20 years old in 1968, and his politics and art have been shaped by the idealism and the liberal activism of that time.

Mothers and Daughters--two distinct, cleverly interlaced plays that can be seen singularly or together, in either order--revolve around the same imaginary gubernatorial election in a large West Coast state. Mothers presents the Republican candidate, Sheldon Vine (played by Bill Geisslinger), in a private retreat as he prepares for the decisive debate of his campaign. Daughters follows a 55-year-old college professor, Michael Bern (Mark Murphy), on a quest that leads through his radical activities of the 1960s and, ultimately, into the midst of the campaign of Vine's Democratic opponent, Rebecca McKeene (Demetra Pittman).

However significant the crossovers, Mothers and Daughters come across as two very different plays.

The first opens at the Vine country home. A small but intense group is gathering for "boot camp," preparation for a televised campaign debate. The team includes the candidate's brother and campaign chair (Tony DeBruno); Vine's wife Connie (Robynn Rodriguez), a portrait of tight, coiffed presentability; and, unexpectedly, his prodigal daughter Deborah (Christine Williams), an environmental activist and tree-sitter who functions as a kind of loose cannon. …

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