Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 9, 2016

An American Daughter

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 21
by Jarice Hanson

Wendy Wasserstein’s plays sometimes try to do too much; they blend politics and social values, examine gender relations and family dynamics, and treat serious issues with humor that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. In Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “An American Daughter,” director Evan Cabnet leaves no ambiguity in crafting a revival that shows how prescient Wasserstein was when this play was written twenty years ago.

Photo by Daniel Rader.
The story begins when Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) is nominated for the post of Surgeon General. She is a working mother who has it all and can do it all—and her American pedigree as the daughter of a Senator and a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant seem to confer status upon her that the public, and the media like. When Timber Tucker (Jason Danieley), an ambush-style television interviewer uncovers a secret about a misplaced jury summons she never answered, Lyssa’s credibility as a public servant is called into question.

The parallels to today’s Presidential campaign are uncanny. The script, inspired by the “Nannygate” incident when Zoë Baird was nominated for Attorney General, shows how powerful media are in influencing public opinion. When Lyssa dons a headband to look “softer,” the audience’s recognition of the irony of past juxtaposed with today’s criticism of a woman in politics leaves no doubt that Lyssa is in part, channeling Hillary Clinton.

The characters in the play are all strongly defined and walk the line between familiar “types” and the people Wasserstein knew, loved, and reviled. The cast is made up of fine actors who clearly “get” the play’s meanings, though some were still struggling with their lines so early in the run, but there is no doubt this production will grow and become stronger.

Derek McLane’s detailed set design is a perfect backdrop for a play so solidly crafted. It is a metaphor for tradition and political ideology, and the changing roles of women in the home and in the public eye. The complexity of Wasserstein’s approach to “An American Daughter” tells us how much women have changed, while politics have not. I think Wasserstein herself, would be pleased, but perhaps dismayed, to see how relevant this work remains today.