We see a family, already a bit dysfunctional but what family isn't, at three crucial points in American political history: September 1979, October 1987, and January 2009.
The 1979 segment is about the final sunset on the progressive 1960s. The heroine, Hester Ferris, has to defend her Kennedy-esque views against her son and his fiance, who surprisingly turn out to be Reagan conservatives. Hester is still hoping that Teddy can save the day. I thought so, too, in those days, but history said otherwise.
The Vietnam War and the damage it did to the American spirit was still very much in the air. On that subject, my wife picked up this brief rendition about the Vietnam War from a gentleman explaining it to someone sitting in the row behind her. "JFK started it, LBJ expanded it, and Nixon tried to get us out it." I guess two out of three ain't bad - Nixon's way of "trying" was to bomb North Vietnam and extend the bombing to Cambodia. (If you'd like see to a truthful hour on the Vietnam War, watch the CNN episode of the "The Sixties".)
Back to the play on the stage, the other really powerful character is the son's fiance, Anna Fitzgerald, who provides an eloquent defense of Reagan and the hard-hat everyday American whom, she is sure, was bypassed in civil rights progress of the 1960s. In the second era of the play, 1987, she has moved to an even more provocative position: she prefers Republican men, she says, because they don't apologize for looking at her "ass". What's at stake in this segment of the play is the end of Reagan era, as epitomized in the impending failure of his Bork nomination to the Supreme Court.
This part of the play was astonishingly relevant last night, given the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the swing voter Anthony Kennedy went with conservatives on the Court. Kennedy was the nominee after Bork failed to attain Senate confirmation, and although he has been better than Bork on some decisions, his decisions on Bush v. Gore and now Hobby Lobby have been egregious.
In the play, Anna wants Hester to not publicly attack Bork, lest it hurt Hester's son, now working for a Republican Senator, and of course Anna, who is working for the Reagan Justice Department. Anna eventually plays the ultimate card: she will not let Hester see her grandson, Ethan, if Hester continues with her plan to denounce Bork in the newspapers. It's an exquisite moment in the play, as Hester refuses to be blackmailed by her daughter-in-law.
In the last segment, on the night of Obama's first inauguration, Ethan, now grown and gay, comes to visit his grandmother, with his partner - an African-American man who is a graduate student at Columbia. Ethan campaigned for Obama, and is going with his partner to the inaugural balls, so the tension we see with his grandmother is not political, but comes from his belief, stoked by his parents, that his grandmother didn't want to see him all of these years. Their rapprochement was another emotional highpoint of this excellent play.
Written by Anthony Giardina (who has touches of Arthur Miller and David Mamet), well acted all around - with tour-de-force performances by Jan Maxwell as Hester and Kristen Bush as Anna - "The City of Conversation" was a perfect play to see in the eve of July 4, and indeed any time.