By Linda Lombardi, Artistic Associate and Literary Manager
Acclaimed director Doug Hughes makes his Arena Stage debut with Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation. After a successful run at Lincoln Center Theater, Doug and Tony have reunited to bring us the thrill of the power plays of Georgetown from the end of the Carter administration through the Reagan era and up to the night of the first inauguration of President Obama. As rehearsals began, I sat down with Doug to discuss the state of politics — in and out of the theater.
What attracts you to this play as a director? And what attracted you to returning to it as a DC production?
I like plays that place characters (and therefore audiences) in impossible situations. I like conflict that cannot be resolved without sacrifice. I like a little blood on the floor at evening's end. Without giving away the store, I think I can claim that The City of Conversation fills that bill. In addition, it's a witty, sane-making work that in two hours gives elegant theatrical shape to the last three horrendously complex decades in this country's politics.
You’ve directed some rather political plays (Oleanna, Doubt, now City). Do you consider yourself political?
I don't know if I'd categorize the plays you mention (or this one, for that matter) as "political."
All three certainly check my favorite box, that of "the impossible situation." But I suppose every one of life's dilemmas can be classified as "political." One of the brilliant things about Tony's play is that it twins the personal and political. Family conflicts begin to look as frighteningly insoluble as crucial questions of policy.
You've worked with Tony for a long time. How would you describe your collaborative relationship?
I'd classify our collaboration as a vital and ever-involving friendship that now and then puts something onstage. Tony and I go back almost as far as the opening scene of this play — October, 1979. Frightening!
I think that the trend you identify is positive. The only reason I can see for the fact that voter turnout in our country is so shamefully low — 36% or something in the 2014 midterms — is that the citizenry has grown deeply discouraged. Individuals have begun to despair of the power of the ballot. Voter apathy certainly suits certain moneyed and therefore high powered segments of our society. Maybe the Arena audience's growing interest in plays that engage political matters is some small sign that we are beginning to wake up to the fact that, to quote the play, "it matters who sits on The Supreme Court."
Do you think we can get back to those days of working across the aisle?
The impossible situation. If we wish to preserve the two party system and our dignity as a nation, I don't think we have any choice. When will things change? When voters furnish majorities for imaginative statesmen and women instead of for sound bite demagogues.
If you could have dinner with any political figure, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I've always heard that White House cuisine during his lengthy tenure in office was godawful but FDR would be my ultimate political dinner companion. It would be great to have Harry Hopkins at the table as well. I'd gladly endure watery cabbage for a chance to engage with those gentlemen about the WPA or Lend Lease.
The play spans the presidencies from Carter through Obama. Who’s your favorite president and why?
I guess I've already identified my favorite president in the above answer but if I were limited to the time covered by this play, my instant answer would be our current president. The nation placed a staggering burden on Barack Obama and I think he has borne it with tremendous strength, courage, class and brilliance. History will classify him as a great president.
Which current issue do you think is most likely to be debated at family dinners 30 years from now?
The issue that is never going to go away is the role of government in American life. Our Constitution ensures that this conflict will never end. What can or should be legislated? Is government the solution or the problem? When should a perceived collective good trump (entirely unintentional pun) an individual right? Drunken uncles will be pounding the table and shouting about these matters for as long as we celebrate Thanksgiving.