Following up on her play “The Cake,” about a baker in North Carolina who struggles to accept her lesbian goddaughter, playwright (and “This Is Us” producer-writer) Bekah Brunstetter now gives us a local politician in North Carolina who struggles with the question: Can politics really help people?
That is the question that two other characters in “Public Servant” ask newly elected County Commissioner Ed Sink (Chris Henry Coffey) directly, indirectly and repeatedly in this worthy and worthwhile new play produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers at Theatre Row.
One is Miriam (Christine Bruno), who has come to Ed’s office with a problem. Her mother recently died, and Miriam has traveled from New York to North Carolina to sell her house. She has discovered that the county is planning to build a freeway right behind it, which will make the house worthless. So her question to the commissioner: Will the county buy the house from her?
The other character is Hannah (Anna Lentz), who is Ed’s own teenage daughter, once worshipful of her Dad. But now, visiting home from college (and overhearing Miriam’s complaints), Hannah wants to know why he has become a politician. “Are you just in it for yourself?”
In interviews for “The Cake,” Brunstetter indicated she wanted to create a non-confrontational way to show her father, a conservative North Carolina politician, why she supported gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. In Public Servant, the playwright may be trying to show New York theatergoers why we shouldn’t dismiss politicians like her father.
We first meet Ed listening to his answering machine messages, a string of complaints and insults from his constituents. And we learn what toll the work is taking on his life, which was not so great to begin with.He is separated from his wife (Hannah’s mother) a mentally ill woman who has entered a prolonged manic period.
But it’s not just Ed’s life we’re asked to consider. We enter into the lives of each of the three characters — and they enter into each other’s lives — and come to understand them a bit better. Yes, Miriam is sarcastic and snappish. But she’s under great stress (and hormones.) She and her husband have been trying to have a baby, with no success (miscarriage after miscarriage), and the cost of keeping on trying has put a financial strain on them; she’s a public school teacher, he’s a social worker. Which is why selling her mother’s house feels like a life or death matter to her.
Hannah has a secret she doesn’t want to tell her father: She’s pregnant; she doesn’t know who the father is; she wants to have an abortion.
I won’t reveal how this all plays out except to say that “Public Servant” feels similar to “This Is Us” in the way it weaves social/political issues gently into the characters’ lives, and how it shares with that show its emotional and optimistic approach: The individuals are each sad and flawed but loving; they have problems (just like the world has problems), they have disagreements (the country is divided), there will be losses and sacrifices, but if they can support one another as a family/a community, things will work out at the end.
If this sounds snarky, that is not my intent. I find “This Is Us” addictive, and I long for a world like the one that the playwright imagines in “Public Servant.”
Director Geordie Broadwater’s production is a modest affair.The play features more than three characters, including Miriam’s husband and Hannah’s mother, but they are all voiced by one of the three cast members, and exist only as voices on the telephone. (This is written into the script.) Edward T. Morris’s set is a standard white picket fence that forms the backdrop to scenes whose locations are suggested by little more than a piece of furniture and a prop or two. (There is a cute little touch with a sponge, which I won’t spoil.) The modesty extends to two of the three performances, who seem to be underplaying their roles – although maybe we’re just expecting a politician to be louder, and a teenager to be more demonstrative.
The standout performance belongs to Christine Bruno as Miriam, whose emotions track clearly, and credibly, from cynical to angry to apologetic to tearful to compassionate to jubilant.
Miriam has cerebral palsy, and so does the actress portraying her. Her disability is deliberately threaded into both the script and the production without becoming the play’s central focus. This is unusual, refreshing, very welcome. It is one of the reasons to celebrate the 40th anniversary of TBTB, whose mission is to advance the work of theater artists with disabilities.
Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Geordie Broadwater
Set design by Edward T. Morris, costume design by Courtney Butt, lighting by Alejandro Fajardo, sound by Sam Crawford, props by Roni Sipp, production manager Jeremy Ping
Cast: Chris Henry Coffey, Christine Bruno, Anna Lentz
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Public Servant is on stage through June 29, 2019