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In ‘City of Conversation,’ a key to our political polarization

Lia D. Mortensen (from left), Elaine Rivkin, Tim Decker, Mattie Hawkinson, Tim Monsion and Greg Matthew Anderson in 'The City of Conversation" at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Charles Osgood)

Why has this country become so ferociously polarized? And why has the American electoral landscape become so distressingly fraught, tattered and seemingly irreconcilable about so many things?

These are the questions addressed in “The City of Conversation,” the uncannily timely, uniquely balanced, multi-generational drama by playwright-novelist Anthony Giardina, now receiving a live-wire Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre under the direction of Marti Lyons.

Making a clear-eyed assessment of the present as extracted from the not-so-distant past, Giardina homes in on the many reasons why the center has failed to hold, and why, since the 1960s, positions have become so entrenched, while the essential social glue that once made a certain amount of compromise possible has disappeared. To be sure, at certain points Giardina stretches things a bit to make his case, yet anyone who has witnessed the tension between friends and family members during the current election cycle might say he has not stretched things far enough. The so-called “culture wars,” that really have been raging since the 1960s, seem to be more heated than ever, with the front lines redrawn in ever starker ways.

Tim Monsion plays Senator George Mallonee and Mattiw hawkinson playsAnna Fitzgerlad in Anthony Giardina's play, "The City of Conversation," at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Tim Monsion plays Sen. George Mallonee and Mattie Hawkinson plays Anna Fitzgerald in Anthony Giardina’s play “The City of Conversation,” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Charles Osgood)

The play begins in 1979, well after the demise of “Camelot” and the Great Society. But Hester Ferris (played with cougar-like flair by Lia D. Mortensen) remains a powerful, glamorous Georgetown socialite and liberal (with somewhat camouflaged rural Southern roots), and still entertains the movers and shakers of Washington, D.C., in the comfort of her traditional living room — a place where food is often hard to find (a richly observed and accurate detail), but the whiskey flows freely.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 23
Where: Northlight Theatre,
9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie
Tickets: $30 – $81
Info: (847) 673-6300;
Run time: 2 hours with
one intermission

The presidential campaign of 1980 is still in play, as incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter must fend off a challenge for the nomination by Sen. Edward Kennedy, and then face Republican Ronald Reagan, who will, of course, win by a landslide and usher in an era of conservative national politics.

As Hester primps for a dinner party for her married lover, Sen. Chandler Harris (a slick Tim Decker), and their dinner party guests — George Mallonee (Tim Monsion, spot-on as an easy Southern charmer), the Republican senator from Kentucky, and his wife, Carolyn (Elaine Rivkin, blistering in her deft puncturing of Hester’s pretenses), two unexpected visitors arrive, and are welcomed by Hester’s long widowed sister, Jean (poignant, pluck work by Natalie West). Despite Hester’s professed liberal values, she treats Jean like a servant — another of the play’s deft touches.

The visitors are Hester’s son, Colin (Greg Matthew Anderson in a wonderful departure from his usual roles), a still long-haired former Vietnam War protester turned Republican, and his attractive girlfriend, the Midwestern-bred, working-class Anna Fitzgerald (a formidable Mattie Hawkinson, who can smoke a cigar with the best of them). They met when they were both students at the London School of Economics. Hester takes an immediate and undisguised dislike to Anna — an openly ambitious young woman who makes no apology for her conservative views, and who clearly possesses a sort of brash, “I can-play-with-the-boys” style. Anna does not flinch. Hester is rattled, but keeps the peace to some extent, even loaning her a chic dress for the party. But the future has arrived.

The wheels of social interaction that once greased the way for compromise are no longer spinning dependably. And while a fierce debate in Congress might still be finessed during a friendly after-hours chat in a Georgetown living room (in this case it concerns membership in a “whites only” country club), the lines are being drawn. And Anna loudly trumpets her opinions in a way that presages those heard in the current campaign, telling Hester: ““I know you see me — us — Gov. Reagan — as barbarians at the gates. But you have lost touch. Do you have any idea how deep it is right now, people’s desire to love their country again?”

Flash forward to 1987, when Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in a firestorm. By now Colin and Anna have married and had a son, Ethan (Tyler Kaplan), and become players in Washington. Anna is admittedly not much of a mother, and often allows Hester to dote on her grandson while she and Colin are consumed by work. But there is tension in the marriage, and even more tension when Anna realizes Hester is working against the Bork nomination. No one will give an inch. Hester loses access to her young grandson. The political has become intensely personal.

Flash forward again to 2009 and the arrival of the Obama administration. Ethan (Anderson) is now an adult, a liberal working to improve inner city-education. [And spoiler alert here: He also is gay, and has an upwardly mobile African-American partner, Donald Logan (Brian Keys).] What goes around has come around. And part of the thrill of this play is the sense that we are now spinning wildly yet again, with no idea about where the needle might stop.

Mattie Hawkinson (from left), Greg Matthew Anderson and Tyler Kaplan in "The City of Conversation" at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Charles Osgood)

Mattie Hawkinson (from left), Greg Matthew Anderson and Tyler Kaplan in “The City of Conversation” at Northlight Theatre. (Photo: Charles Osgood)