Theatre Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB) is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a production of a new work by Bekah Brunstetter, Public Servant. The play is set in a small town in central North Carolina, a state that the native Brunstetter has previously focused on in dramas such as Oohrah! and The Cake. Following the TBTB mission statement, Geordie Broadwater’s first-rate production features both abled and disabled actors.
As the play opens, Miriam (Christine Bruno), a woman in her early 40s who happens to have cerebral palsy, is visiting the office of Ed Sink (Chris Henry Coffey), the town’s new county commissioner. As Miriam ascends the steps to his office, she deftly conveys the character’s daily physical challenges that abled people take for granted.
Miriam has traveled from New York to sell her late mother’s house. Unfortunately, the town has plans to reroute the beltway next to the property, thus depreciating the home’s value and quick cash potential. Miriam is determined to get Sink to change those plans. Sink’s daughter, Hannah, (Anna Lentz) is also in town, home from college a few days earlier than expected and on her own secret mission.
Brunstetter embraces a host of issues (some would say PC talking points) and weaves them into the plot. Disability rights and pro-choice politics take the lead, but also mentioned are gay rights, minority rights, labor unions, the legalization of marijuana, and the quality and availability of American health care. The characters are identifiable, well-drawn and fully human. Brunstetter peppers her snappy dialogue with plenty of “y’all”s to indicate place.
The performances are both polished and humane. Bruno creates a compelling Miriam. Watching her struggle to put on her shoes after a stressful conversation demonstrates how profoundly a disability can amplify emotional anguish. But Miriam is also a New Yorker. She’s been around the block, and life has never been easy for her. Perhaps as compensation, her character is always the smartest person in the room, and she doesn’t suffer fools. She’s direct, unapologetic and not always likable. At times she can even be cruel, and the way she browbeats the father and daughter with inappropriate candor and rude humor can be uncomfortable.
Lentz’s Hannah is inquisitive and impressionable, having just had her mind expanded via progressive politics as a college freshman. Deeply impressed by Miriam’s forthrightness, Hannah seeks Miriam’s assistance even though her father disapproves of the visitor from New York. Miriam implores Hannah to “open your eyes inside your eyes” and stop believing that nice people are always nice. Each has something the other wants: Hannah wants Miriam’s confidence. Miriam wants Hannah’s fertility.
Coffey as Sink aptly conveys his character’s “nice guy” Southern charm, particularly as it pertains to political life. Always on the go, pleasing his constituents, cutting backroom deals and eating fast food at his desk instead of proper meals at a table, Sink registers strongly as a Bill Clinton type. Sink became a politician after running a furniture store in order to “do something” with his life, but he worries he is failing as a father.
Brunstetter’s plot takes some turns that are both unexpected yet sensible. But the play starts to lose steam as the writing becomes idea-heavy. Believable interaction between characters through the passage of time, which is the heartbeat of any character-driven drama, is replaced by characters taking turns pontificating and speaking “deep thoughts.” This creates soft drama, as heart-to-hearts pile up and interactions become implausible. Just when the conflict should be intensifying, the characters behave with an altruism that diffuses the high plot points and leads to an aborted catharsis. Hannah’s parents sent her to elementary school wearing a T-shirt with an embryo graphic on it. Would her politician father really be so forgiving of her reproductive choices at the play’s end?
Broadwater keeps the pacing up and the acting focused. Edward T. Morris’ simple triangular set nicely evokes the suburbs, with a white picket fence that has partitions open and close to reveal set pieces such as the commissioner’s cluttered office and Miriam’s late mother’s garden. Treetops painted on wood siding serve as a backdrop enhancing the play’s country feel. Adding to that vibe are folk-music interludes by James Taylor, Nick Drake, and others during scene changes.
Public Servant is an earnest play with well-drawn characters, and actors giving accomplished performances. But the play tries too hard to be “nice” at the end. Everything works out, unlike in real life. It has a little too much harmony to be truly satisfying.
Theatre Breaking Through Barrier’s production of Public Servant runs through June 29 at the Clurman Theatre (410 West 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit the box office or tbtb.org.