This review was originally published to Broadway World on August 15, 2016
Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes is about to be named Surgeon General of the United States. She has devoted her entire career to the advocacy of women's rights. She married well, has great kids, and surrounds herself with an elite group of accomplished friends. Her confirmation seems likely as the curtain rises on An American Daughter. Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, a descendant of President Ulysses S. Grant will become a household name and champion for women across the nation if she's confirmed. The stakes could not be higher
An American Daughter, now playing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is Wendy Wasserstein's 1996 play about women struggling to balance family and service in politics. Wasserstein wrote her play in response to the 1993 Nannygate scandal. Nannygate occurred when President Bill Clinton's first two nominees (both female) for United States Attorney General were ripped apart by the media after evidence revealed the nominees had hired undocumented workers as nannies for their children. Nannygate exposed the unruly vetting a woman faces in the workforce compared to a man.
Lyssa faces her own "gate" when an esteemed career and nomination unravels after publicly referring to her mother as a simple Indianna housewife. The media spins the story into political farce resulting in staunch criticism from the women of America. Lyssa's professional accomplishments become irrelevant as preposterous conclusions are drawn to Lyssa's relationship with her mother. Now, a doctor devoted to the protection of women's reproductive rights is being torn apart by institutionalised sexism.
The robust cast of nine make great use of Wasserstein's language and lands her wonderful wit with poise. Saidah Arrika Ekulona is sterling as Judith and delivers lines like, "I am, technically [Jewish]. I was bat-mitzvahed at Garfield Temple, Garfield Place, Brooklyn, New York. Today I am a woman. I thank God everyday I was born half a man"with great timing. Richard Poe as Senator Allen Hughes tackles a complicated role of a man with internal conflict of disagreeing with his daughter politically but never once backing down as a supporter of hers. The two have the best onstage relationship.
The most complicated of all roles in An American Daughter is the daughter herself, Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes. Lyssa is called bland, unobjectionable, unrelatable, and privileged all in the first act. Nearly all personality traits are projections from other characters. Diane Davis plays a woman who ignores all the suggestions from political pundits on how to behave. Davis never concerns herself with trying to smile more or appear approachable. Instead she focuses on her character's sense of public duty and never apologizes for it.
At the helm of this excellent revival is director Evan Cabnet. He uses the action of the script to find a balanced pacing to keep the show humming comparable to an episode of The West Wing. Cabnet is coyly focused on the conflict in the piece and not as much on world building. He never overstates the period of mid-90's by giving An American Daughter a distinct look of the period. Costumes by Jessica Pabst are timely but never scream the past. Same goes for Derek McLane's delicious Georgetown living room set. With these subtle hints, Cabnet tricks the audience at the start of the play to think this is a contemporary story and then slowly turns the clock back as the action progresses.
Wendy Wasserstein's death leaves us wondering how she would have reacted to her play's voice in 2016 at a time when our nation is watching its first major female nominee run for President of the United States. Win, or lose it will be worth revisiting this play in the future to see what parallels still exist. By then, I certainly hope An American Daughter will require only one word to describe it. Outdated.