Onstage they argue, debate, criticize, cut deals, issue dire ultimatums and make extreme personal sacrifices, all in the interest of advancing their political agenda and building a better America. Offstage, whether voting red or blue, the company members of the West Coast premiere of Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation say they recognize the importance of keeping the discussion alive.
Thanks in part to her headlining role as the uncompromising liberal Hester Ferris, Christine Lahti has privately learned to listen a bit more closely, even to the conservatives whom she has distrusted her entire political life.
For a self-described “political animal” who offered to stump for Hilary Clinton in her previous campaign and will do so again in 2016, Lahti views herself as making progress.
“I’ve gotten a little bit better,” the Emmy award-winning actress says with a laugh. “I think I’ve learned a lot in terms of communication and conversation, and that judging anybody immediately for a label is not productive and actually hurtful.”
“There are a variety of political views in the cast,” adds Michael Wilson who directs Conversation opening May 20 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. “Obviously, as you would expect in L.A. or New York, there’s a lot of liberal progressives, but even within that, you find that there’s a lot of supporters for Hilary and there’s some for Bernie. People get quite dug in to their perspectives.”
“I think that’s a good thing,” Wilson continues. “We’ve learned a lot from each other, and I think we have found a way to have a conversation and listen to one another and really be open, which is what the play is asking us all to do.”
Set in Washington D.C., Giardina’s play begins in 1979 and spans four decades and six presidential administrations. Ultra-liberal Beltway doyenne Hester Ferris uses her dinner parties to try to effect political change. A bunch of potentially game-changing appointments are coming down the pike once Ronald Reagan gets into office. But Hester faces the battle of her personal and political life when her son Colin returns home with his ambitious Republican fiancée, Anna, who is looking to make inroads with the new administration.
Wilson and his cast stress that Giardina’s play is as much a high stakes family drama as a historical marker. Still, they note that it’s fortuitous timing that Conversation—which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2014—takes the stage in Los Angeles in the heat of this presidential race. The production closes the weekend before the California primaries.
And, given the diversity of their backgrounds, the company members say they are primed for all related conversation and discussion.
Deborah Offner, who plays Hester’s equally politically active sister, Jean Swift, is the real life daughter of blacklisted screenwriter Mortimer Offner. Steven Culp (as West Virginia Senator Chandler Harris) is a “knee-jerk liberal” who has previously played Robert Kennedy. Former Waltons matriarch Michael Learned labels herself “a conservative liberal.” Learned has a one- scene appearance in Conversation playing the wife of a conservative Kentucky Senator who is played by David Selby.
Neither Jason Ritter (Colin) nor Georgia King (Anna) had been born in 1979 when The City of Conversation begins. King jokes that the only person who knew less about America’s political history when rehearsals started was 8-year old actor Nicholas Oteri, who plays Anna and Colin’s son, Ethan.
“I’m British, and we just studied Nazis in school pretty much for the entire duration, so this has been insanely educational,” says King whose character is inspired by the conservative commentator Ann Coulter. “I’ve been reading a lot about Reagan for my character and just how he went from being a movie star to being a president. I’m not in any way making a political statement, but it is quite a huge leap.”
Ritter, the son of the late actor John Ritter, recalls growing up with fights over politics being waged around the dinner table. On many occasions, he found that the person with whom he disagreed seemed to be making the stronger argument simply because they argued more calmly. Indeed, several cast members noted that part of the beauty of Giardina’s play is the manner in which the playwright gives politically unpopular positions to sympathetic characters and vice versa.
Lahti, who has appeared in several plays by Wendy Wasserstein, considers The City of Conversation to be a strongly feminist play. Where a Hester Ferris may have had to operate largely behind the scenes in 1979, the landscape has changed, Lahti says, and for the better.
“All the research I have done reminds me of why I am such a passionate activist feminist,” Lahti says. “I live within that skin, so that part of Hester I don’t have to worry about. Also I also think that Hilary is the most qualified person [for the White House], but aside from that, the idea of having a woman president is so meaningful to me, I could cry every time I think about it.”
Evan Henerson is a longtime theater writer and critic based in Los Angeles. You can read his reviews on TheaterMania and at Examiner.com.