The Colonial Players of Annapolis’ production of The City of Conversation is a powerful, timely play. Written by Anthony Giardina and directed by Ruben Vellekoop, it is about families and politics, and the sacrifices made for ideals. The discussions feel like one many families are having with themselves after the election.
The play starts in 1979 and the beginnings of the “Reagan Revolution” and ends in 2009 with Barack Obama’s inauguration, charting the tremendous changes, both politically and personally, in one family. Hester Ferris (Kathleen Clarke Ruttum) is a Georgetown hostess, known for bringing together politicians of different sides to work things out behind closed doors. When her son Colin (Josh Mooney) returns from college with his girlfriend Anna (Rebecca Gift), who has a very different view of getting things done, it sets off a chain of events that, 30 years later, are still being dealt with.
Ruttum gives a remarkable performance as Hester, controlling the stage. She can be incredibly charming at the parties she hosts, while still holding firm to her liberal beliefs, and working hard to achieve her goals. Watching her schmooze with Republican Senator Mallonee (Jeff Sprague) and his wife Carolyn (Carlotta Capuano) is a joy, as she works on him to get his support on a project. She has a touching connection with her grandson Ethan (Henry MacDonald), playful and unguarded in a rare show of pure affection.
Her strongest performances come from her conversations with Anna, fraught with personal and political animosity. During their first meeting, Hester is barely civil to the younger woman, giving her unwanted advice on surviving DC. Before too long, every interaction becomes an argument. Gift gives a powerful performance as Anna, standing up to Ruttum and defending her conservative views. She tries to win over Hester at first, complimenting her social skills, but it doesn’t work. Her slow reveal of her political stance, done while charming the Senator and his wife, makes for compelling viewing. Where Hester believes in finding common ground with her opponents, Anna simply wants to win. As she says, “Be arrogant. Arrogance gives you strength.” Their discussions are full of insults; Anna confesses at one point that she does not feel like a good mother, to which Hester makes a pointed silence. Later, Hester is left sobbing at her desk after being forced into an ultimatum. Gift and Ruttum make a wonderful pair, comic in their barbs, but also emotionally strained.
Josh Mooney gives a great performance as Colin and later, as a grown-up Ethan. As Colin, he plays the son trying to forge his own path away from a powerful, domineering mother, out of her shadow. He forcefully tries to show his mother “a different way of looking at things,” although she won’t accept his point of view. In the conflict between Hester and Anna, he is torn between the two strong women in his life, trying to keep the peace but also standing true to his beliefs, an incredibly difficult position that he plays perfectly. As Ethan, he is shy and quiet, trying to reconnect with his grandmother but also still carrying the pain of the family conflict. He calls Hester’s battles “ancient” and remembers nothing but fighting in the house. Hester defends what she’s done, explaining “it is good to fight,” but tries to reconnect with her grandson. She makes a beautiful gesture of love towards him that seems to show their relationship will get better.
Karen Kellner plays Jean, Hester’s sister and helper. She continually runs around, fetching papers, dresses, and snacks. She provides the calm, stable center in a chaotic, house, lending emotional and material support to Hester from helping to care for Ethan to edit Hester’s letter opposing Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Paul Banville is Chandler Harris, a Senator and Hester’s lover. He plays the wheeling dealing politician perfectly, coming to life during the party with Senator Mallonee and trying to nudge him into making a deal. He is also very much in love with Hester, at one point embracing her when Colin enters; this gets one of the biggest laughs of the evening. He is a rather quiet but strong character, doing in the political realm what Hester does in the social.
David Foster is Donald, Ethan’s partner. He is engaging and social, eager to speak to Hester about her role in history. Working on a PhD in history, he is thrilled when Hester offers to show him original documents. He helps rebuild the relationship between Ethan and Hester. There is a tender moment when he dances with Ethan, and a funny one when he mentions the title of his dissertation: “The Decline of Liberalism after the Vietnam Era” to which Hester asks “Did we decline?”
Carrie Brady does a great job as costume designer, making all the clothing look authentically period. Hester usually wears khaki slacks and a white dress shirt, although at the party she has an elegant blue dress. Anna meets Hester wearing a tight red sweater, a skirt, and brown boots, then changes into a beautiful black dress, borrowed from Hester. Later in the play, she has the typical 80’s “working girl look” with a red skirt and white dress shirt.
Mary Butcher is a talented set designer. The set feels like an elegant living room, with a stylish sofa, desk, and well-stocked liquor cabinet. Empty picture frames hang from wires above the stage, giving the illusion of many paintings while not blocking the audience’s view.
Alex Brady does great work as lighting designer. Before Act 2’s second scene, the lights are off as radios convey the passage of time, ending with Obama’s inauguration speech. The lights slightly dim during Hester and Anna’s arguments.
Ruben Vellekoop has done a wonderful job as director, his first for Colonial Players. The actors move around the stage and each other effortlessly, and talk about complex issues easily and naturally. Their passion and beliefs come through strongly, as does the humor. Everything comes together to create a night of engaging, powerful theater. Hopefully it will allow families to have some much-needed conversations of their own.
Running Time: 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Meet the Cast of ‘The City of Conversation’, Part 1: Josh Mooney.
Meet the Cast of ‘The City of Conversation’, Part 2: Rebecca Gift.
Meet the Cast of ‘The City of Conversation’, Part 3: Kathleen Ruttum.