Strong-willed women are very much a part of the American political landscape, and one in particular as the 2008 presidential election approaches. Gotham Stage Company's solid production of Randall David Cook's Fate's Imagination offers both a look into the family life and history of a Hillary Clinton-ish presidential hopeful and some daring speculation on what might have made a woman like Hillary into such a political powerhouse. Cook's unfortunately titled play is about freelance writer Brock, who struggles to find his political identity as the son of a powerful New York senator, his mother Susan. Like Hillary, she has her eye on the White House. Brock's late father was also a senator—and, in another analogy to the Clintons, an adulterer. Late one night, an older woman, Lilah, approaches Brock on the street and says he strikingly resembles a long-lost lover. Then she bluntly asks him, "Do you want to go back to my place and fool around?"
To Brock, this chance encounter could be a novel-worthy "life experience," so he agrees. Soon, the two are involved in a passionate love affair. Unfortunately, it won't do for a presidential candidate's son to be dating a woman 30 years older, so Momma intervenes. Upon confronting Lilah, Susan discovers that Brock's "chance encounter" was anything but—Lilah is actually someone with a grudge and some pretty lurid political ammunition to use against Brock's parents.
Cook's play is tightly structured, with only a few elements that don't work. There is some very good dialogue, like the frank line above, but a few lines seem as if they were forced into the script. For instance, when Lilah and Brock are talking about politics in her apartment, Brock suddenly exclaims, "Words can be more powerful than missiles!" That statement, blurted out so passionately during a quiet moment, hardly seems natural. Also, a scene where Susan speaks to her dead husband on an airplane is difficult to accept as realistic.
Despite the few bad lines, the script's overall voice is hip and relevant. In some of the best scenes, Block addresses the audience through his blog entries, where he speaks casually about both his new relationship and his desire to enlist and join the fighting in Iraq. These scenes are intimately truthful, and actor Jed Orlemann's delivery here is especially compelling.
Director Hayley Finn has wrapped Cook's script in a contemporary package that is an interesting cross between naturalism and high style. As such, the characters move and interact very unaffectedly in the love scenes between Lilah and Brock, while Susan's public appearance speeches are done almost entirely in strobe lights, to simulate camera flashes. Finn uses this dichotomy to great effect throughout, relying on strong design to keep the scenes crisp.
Robin Vest's innovative scenic design is a fairly realistic one-bedroom apartment, with some handy flourishes that facilitate the other scenes. When Susan is on an airplane, a small circular picture frame on the wall next to her lights up to simulate an airplane window. Aided by light designer Lucas Benjaminh Krech's cleverly placed lights, Finn's team manages to establish different locations very well. Lilah collects old photos, and the walls of her apartment are covered with these framed pictures. Vest and projection designer luckydave create some nice effects by projecting small images, like Brock's blog or photos taken of Susan, into the frames.
All three actors are first-rate talents. Donna Mitchell successfully channels Hillary Clinton's spunk and fervor without descending into parody. Her Susan is very grounded, and I was particularly impressed by a very small detail: the dispassionate way in which she spoke to her driver on her cell phone seemed appropriate for a woman of her stature.
As Lilah, Elisabeth Norment has an interesting challenge: she must be both motherly and attractive to Brock. Norment achieves both. Her character is a teacher, and she delivers several monologues about The Odyssey that effectively put the story into a surprising historical perspective.
At the center of this production is Orlemann's Brock. His character aptly serves as an example of his generation—he beams in his blogging scenes but sulks pointedly in a brunch scene with his mother. Brock searches for meaning in the Iraq war and his new love life, and Orlemann portrays his inner struggle with enthusiasm.
Like The Odyssey, Fate's Imagination has a lot to say about power, gender, and war in contemporary society. Even if it isn't perfectly scripted, the material remains challenging and ambitious.