No, we did not see an epic production of Dicken’s Tail of Two Cities. However, some might consider seeing two plays in two days, both of which addressed the same themes as an epic theatre weekend. By circumstance of season tickets and travel plans, we decided that moving one of our scheduled plays was expedient. Thus, we saw two performances at Arena Stage back-to-back: Sweat and The City of Conversation. Both are set in contemporary time: Sweat from 2000 to 2009, and The City of Conversation from the late 197o’s to 2009. Both are set in East Coast cities: Sweat in Reading, PA, and The City of Conversation in Washington, D.C. Both are essentially drawing-room dramas: Sweat in the neighborhood bar up the street from the factory, The City of Conversation in the livingroom of the family’s Georgetown home. Both address the effects of hard-line thinking on the families and individuals, in the context of social change. One tale, two cities.
The storyline of Sweat is that of the shutting down of a factory town. This is a new play, developed by Lynn Nottage through interviews with residents from Reading, PA about the era when the factories were being moved off-shore. It begins in 2009, starting with the effects of the shut-downs (as well as the housing bubble bursting), then spends most of the play as a flash-back to 2000 to illustrate the events which lead up to the present situation.
The 2009 characters range from loathsome to pitiful, shadows of their vibrant, feisty, charming personalities before world and political events pitted their economic security against their hard-line stance against the union-busting tactics of the factory owners. In the final scene, a seemingly secondary character, Oscar, the Hispanic busboy at the bar, delivers that line that defeats the stubbornness that has propelled the prior events. He is now the bar manager. He has kept on the former bar manager as the busboy, after he suffered a head injury defending Oscar from two local young men who were let go from the factory. They have returned to the bar to confront their own ghost after being released from prison. The comment that Oscar has been kind to Stan. Oscar replies, “That how we should be.”
The City of Conversation is the epitome of Washington, D.C. politics in the post-WW II years. The men attend committee meetings, while the women arrange dinner parties, where the men smoke cigars and work out the details that they cannot publicly discuss, and the women set them straight on all topics and decisions. The home of the Hester Ferris in Georgetown is the setting for the interactions. The resignation of President Nixon has occurred. President Carter is being too nice for their hard-core liberalism. Hester and Senator Chandler are obviously from the liberal position on all political matters (living in a non-matrimonial fashion for the 1970’s). Her son, Colin brings home his fiancé, Anna, who is ardently conservative. They see a new era of politics and society with the campaign of Ronald Reagan.
Beyond the general pendulum swinging between liberal parents and conservative children, the social norms of D.C. politics is changing. Bipartisanship is waning as the conservatives dismiss the tradition of gathering socially with their opponents. Litmus tests on topics, such as abortion, override the willingness to engage in lively debate and discussion. Compromise is shunned as abandoning of one’s values and position. All-or-none strategies rule. When conversations cannot occur, undermining one’s opponents becomes the norm.
This is played out in the mid-1980’s around President Reagan’s nomination of Justice Bork for a Supreme Court position. Anna and Colin are involved in the hearings promoting Bork as a reasonable candidate. Hester and Chandler work to undermine his reputation. By this time Anna and Colin have a 6-year-old son, Ethan, whom Hester babysits after school. When Anna learns that Hester has been clandestinely writing news releases challenging Bork’s credibility, she puts forth the ultimatum that Hester retract her positions or never her grandson again.
The play ends after 20 years of silence and isolation. Anna and Colin divorced. Colin left Washington to pursue local and state politics in New England. Ethan has returned to D.C. for President Obama’s inauguration. He inquired about a grandmother, of whom he has vague memories. They meet and ponder those lost decades. Decades of silence because of the loss of the ability for adults to converse.
When profits and winning-at-all-costs guide our decisions, how many lives are left in ruins? When my-way-or-the-highway forms our reasons, how many opportunities of empathy are missed? When we see that the only way to uphold my beliefs is to destroy you, are we forgetting kindness, forgiveness, understanding, and concern? “That’s how we should be” is a sad epilogue that we should avoid regretting.