In collaboration with the Black Theatre Ensemble, the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society opens its 165th season in the living room of a Georgetown townhouse. Set in a familiar scene, Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” features a set that puts all attention on the riveting plot.
Directed by Caitlin Ouano (COL ’17), the Georgetown-based political drama is centered on Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, played by Mollie Rodgers (COL ’17), the presidential nominee for Surgeon General. While she is initially thought to be a perfect fit, an examination of her past and partisan politics come to threaten her confirmation.
Ouano was interested in “An American Daughter” for its themes of women and opportunity in America, having grown tired of one-dimensional female characters.
“I wanted to explore in a stage and into performance the way women interact with each other, the way we view women, and the barriers women have to opportunity,” Ouano said. “Strong female roles have been lacking in the past few years. A great limitation for female characters is they always have to be either this or that, pristine or evil.”
In her portrayal of Hughes, Rodgers manages to simultaneously channel tremendous strength and deep insecurity. The undertones of Hughes’ character demand a keen, nuanced interpretation. The unconscious biases and double standards for which she is immediately judged make her out to be frigid and soulless — too elitist, too privileged, too cold and too out-of-touch with the “real” women of America.
While the play may feel dated almost 20 years after its debut, its depiction of gender bias is hauntingly familiar.
“The sad thing is it was written in the 1990s, but little has changed in way of perception of females,” Rodgers said. “The play explores the idea of women being judged based on gender first and merit second. How do you balance that in terms of promoting feminism and moving women into an equal status to men, while not necessarily becoming the voice of your gender?”
While the production is undoubtedly a group effort, certain individual performances lend depth and nuance to an already exceptional script.
Daniel Ruescher (COL ’20) delivers a masterful performance as Morrow McCarthy, a highly opinionated Christian gay columnist with a strong anti-abortion stance. His resonating, deep voice and outstanding physicality paired perfectly with his frenetic wit result in a character capable of both charming and infuriating his subjects.
Walter Abrahmson — a quasi-celebrity sociology professor at Georgetown — is colorfully depicted in the production by Alec Meguid (COL ’17) as Hughes’ counter-conscience. Constantly shifting from being an empathetic supporter of his wife’s integrity to a somewhat insecure “conscientious critic” — as Hughes often describes him — Meguid succeeds in convincingly rendering a genuinely confused man, skeptical of Hughes’ “prissiness” and unwillingness to compromise.
Lisette Booty (COL ’17), who plays Dr. Judith Kaufman, a successful, childless Jewish oncologist and Lyssa’s oldest friend, brings a remarkable performance. With a light, humorous touch, Booty strikes on Judith’s essence with ease, and the exchanges between the close friends resonate with genuine emotion.
Booty delivers a compelling monologue — Kaufman’s most memorable moment in the play. Shaken and damp, she arrives at Hughes’ house after Tashlikh, a Jewish festival of regrets, and recounts how she was throwing muffin crumbs into the Potomac — each representing a personal regret — and decided to drown herself. A floating donut box reminded her of her mother’s motto, “As you ramble on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, not the hole,” and she immediately crawled from the river.
The cohesive thread in the story is the set: a Georgetown townhouse where the public chatter and sensationalist tabloids trap Lyssa into its silent interior. The living room produces a claustrophobic, sinking atmosphere and follows Hughes’ turns from intimacy and vulnerability with her husband to her “senator’s daughter” smile. Hughes is always aware of the adjustments she must constantly make to herself in order to succeed.
Mask and Bauble began to work on the set over the summer, as it was deemed an essential element in determining how the rest of the show would materialize.
“We started working on design as early as June,” producer Carmen Livesay (COL ’17) said. “It’s a really collaborative process, meeting with Caitlin so the designers can shape their vision to fit into the director’s for the show.”
This collaborative vision resulted in a powerful set design that drives the plot forward. The open dialogue that characterized the process led to the realization of an ambitious vision.
“Our graphic designers started brainstorming ideas and, as she came up with that image, it even influenced her view of the show. There was a back-and-forth collaboration between the designers and Caitlin,” Livesay said.
One of Hughes’ monologues reveals what Ouano intended to highlight when she set out to adapt this play: the sea of invisible boundaries pervading every day of life for the modern woman.
“That kind of hard-working woman needs to learn it’s arrogant to be herself. And if she refused to compensate for her achievements, then she deserves to be hung out to dry.”
The issues about gender and politics raised by Wasserstein were initially a commentary on specific events of the 1990s. In 2016, however, many women still feel as though they are evaluated on a binary scale of good versus bad.
Lyssa stands in sharp contrast to this common evaluation of women, defying any attempt at binary categorization.
“There are a lot of sides to Lyssa. That’s what drew me to her. She doesn’t have to be anything specifically,” Ouano said. “She’s neither good nor bad. She’s just a doctor thrown into a situation, tossed back and forth.”
While the play is not directly based on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Ouano believes the parallels between Clinton and Hughes are evident throughout the play. The profound disbelief that a woman can be as complex as a man is at the heart of much of the hesitation toward female political figures.
“It was surprisingly timely. Walking from seeing Trump and Hillary debate and then going into the living room of a woman who is also running for public office,” Ouano said. “It was an incredibly fortunate opportunity in terms of context, which invariably contributed to the content of the play.”
“An American Daughter” is undoubtedly ambitious, assessing the very core question of what the perception of women is in society. By the conclusion of the play, the audience is left with unanswered questions, and the effect is far more substantial than any attempt to fully resolve the deeply engrained conflicts it examines. Instead, it sets out to make viewers ask themselves why women are pressured to fit in a specific mold and celebrates those who refuse.