Last Saturday, TheatreWorks launched its 47th season with the world premiere of Suzanne Bradbeer's "Confederates," a play packed with timely questions about journalistic ethics and the ever-present political minefield of our nation's racially charged history. Presented now, in the midst of a presidential-election season, the play seems especially relevant, with a story that could easily be ripped from tomorrow's headlines.
At the center of the story is Will, an ambitious young reporter tasked with following the nascent presidential campaign of a popular Virginia senator. As luck would have it, he is acquainted with the senator's college-age daughter, Maddie, with whom he shared a summer at arts camp when both were teens. When he encounters her again on the campaign trail, Will offers himself as a much-needed confidant and, in so doing, stumbles upon a secret that could derail the senator's campaign: An ex-boyfriend is threatening Maddie with a photo in which she appears wearing nothing but a confederate flag.
Desperate to justify herself to Will (who happens to be African-American), she explains that she had staged the photo as part of a college art project meant to challenge traditional interpretations of Civil War-era iconography. She is terrified that the image will go public, and Will offers advice on how to manage the potential firestorm.
But even while he acts as Maddie's confidant -- her confederate, if you will -- Will is tracing down secondary sources and preparing to break the story himself. And before he is fully convinced that the story actually is a story -- that its news value is worth the damage it would do to both Maddie and her father -- his reporting has taken on a momentum of its own, forcing Will to make the hardest decision of his career.
Directed by Lisa Rothe, TheatreWorks' production has all the qualities of a viable political aspirant: It is clean, handsome, and articulate.
Andrew Boyce's straightforward set consists of two glass-paneled walls that meet at a right angle (nearly unheard of in theatrical design), which rotate atop an inset turntable. With the addition of some unobtrusively chic furniture, a floor-length drape, and occasional bits of signage, the unit set perfectly represents a multitude of rooms in various hotels (conference room, guest room, hotel bar, ladies' room, "business center," etc.) and a press bus. The atmospherics are further aided by Pamila Z. Gray's subtle lighting shifts and Brendan Aanes's ambient sound. Even the set changes are accomplished with an air of professional bustle befitting a well-oiled campaign advance team.
The cast is composed of three equally talented and personable actors: Richard Prioleau as Will, Jessica Lynn Carroll as Maddie and Tasha Lawrence as Stephanie, a veteran reporter who becomes Will's less-than-willing mentor. Prioleau keeps Will's motives appropriately murky, giving us the sense that the budding journalist may not understand his own loyalties. Carroll's Maddie exudes a believable mixture of naivete, insecurity, and unexamined white privilege. Lawrence, meanwhile, gets all the show's best laughs, providing a nice contrast to Will and Maddie's earnestness. Her portrayal of Stephanie, a seasoned correspondent who has seen it all and liked very little of it, is at times reminiscent of Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown, yet the character is fully hers.
Bradbeer's imagined scandal is undeniably plausible -- the sort of revelation that would ignite the blogosphere and fill a news cycle or two with predictable waves of outrage and umbrage. And yet the drama inherent in Maddie's predicament never fully ignites the Lucie Stern stage. The play is intelligent, engaging, well-crafted and well-produced, and yet it lacks a certain visceral impact. The closest we come to a gut-punch moment is in an extraneous subplot, when road-bound and deadline-ridden Will fights on the phone with the mother of his 3-year-old child.
Maybe the problem is structural. The existence of the potentially campaign-crushing photo is the play's biggest shocker, and it's revealed quite early in the course of the story. Bradbeer gives us twists and complications as Will and Stephanie ask probing questions (Where did Maddie get the flag? What was her true purpose in staging the photo?) but none of these can top the original revelation. As a result, the bulk of the play feels merely procedural, with a final climax forced by a deadline from Will's editor.
Or maybe the problem is one of timing. The decision to premier Bradbeer's play in a presidential election year, its four-weekend run encompassing both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, probably seemed like a no-brainer. But 2016 is no ordinary election year, and audiences cannot help but view "Confederates" within the context of our current electoral fever dream. After witnessing a primary season in which all traditional rules of political decorum seemed to vaporize -- in which a certain billionaire became his party's presumptive nominee while actively inflaming racial and religious tensions -- the thought of a candidate's family member snapping an ill-considered selfie seems almost quaint.
Ultimately, though, "Confederates" is a show that asks questions, many of which are vitally important in our media-drenched, racially fractured political environment. TheatreWorks has given us an evening of intelligent and thought-provoking theater, and it's well worth the ticket price.
What: "Confederates," a play presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 7, Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Cost: Tickets range from $19-$80.
Info: Go to Theatreworks or call 650-463-1960.