Review: ‘Born Yesterday’ at Ford’s Theatre

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What a sparkling production of Born Yesterday at Ford’s Theatre. Written in 1946 as the United States was standing powerful after the carnage of WWII, Garson Kanin’s script is delightfully subversive; especially for those who root for the browbeaten to win out over the powerful and selfish.

The cast of Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The cast of Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Under Aaron Posner’s smart, sharp direction, Born Yesterday is no nostalgic trip back in time. Far from it. Posner makes sure that personal transformations are front and center. He makes no updates in time or setting or props to make the show more relevant to current times here in the nation’s capital. Posner lets Kanin’s shrewd script and its richly detailed characters speak for themselves.

Posner also provides for line delivery and movement pacing so that 1940s morality on issues (including that a woman must be married and cannot have her own agency) remains front-and-center. As for Kanin’s constant refrain through his characters’ dialogue that education is not only the answer to ignorance but might prevent fascism–I leave that to you to decide for yourselves.

Abov all, Posner’s splendid casting choices enrapture me. From the lead to the surrounding ensemble, there is such a shared vitality among them. But Kimberly Gilbert in the central role of Billie Dawn is the sun around which other cast members rotate. Gilbert is beyond electric. She is the Northern Lights.

OK now, here is a synopsis of Born Yesterday. A self-made rich man named Harry Brock (Edward Gero) arrives in Washington, D.C., bringing a bullying, volcanic, crude, “know-nothing” attitude. His small entourage includes his longtime live-in companion, and former Broadway chorus member Billie Dawn (Kimberly Gilbert), first heard with a high pitched voice and an open style of physically presenting herself, then subtly, ingeniously changing all but her voice. Brock has made his millions as a shrewd (or perhaps corrupt is a better word) junk dealer and a full believer in free enterprise–as long as he is the winner.

It is the end of WWII. Brock sees opportunity everywhere to make more money. Maybe even a cartel would be good for him. But to make his mark, Brock needs to change some American laws and regulations that get in the way of his plans. As Brock loudly intones: “Who needs rules, I am rich.”

So in D.C., Brock seeks a Senator (Todd Scofield) who can be bought. But there are some problems standing in the way of Brock’s greedy path to greatness. There is a seemingly idealistic writer named Paul Verrall (earnest straight man Cody Nickell) who regularly pops off earnest noble words such as “A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in” and a humiliated, one-time big lawyer who has sold his soul to Brock (portrayed as a sloppy drunk with little self-respect by Eric Hissom).

As Born Yesterday progresses to its ending, issues beyond the treatment of women, including the transformation of Billie Dawn into a position of power and agency come forth to add more interest. There are quietly presented class and cultural differences between the folk from New York/New Jersey like Brock and Billie Dawn and the D.C. big-wigs such as the Senator and his wife.

But Kanin’s script and Posner’s direction always bring the production back to Billie’s awakening into her own agency. Into her own power. Into ownership of her own body and mind. She stands up to Brock so he bellows, “What’s going on around here? As Billie says, there will be surprises coming. When another character suggests a “revolution” is happening, Billie says to Brock that “when you steal from the government, you’re stealing from yourself, you dumb ox.”

Kimberly Gilbert as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford's Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Kimberly Gilbert as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday, now playing at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But, make no mistake. Brock may be lovable in his own way when he and Billie play gin rummy as if in a scene from The Honeymooners with Art Carney and Jackie Gleason from back in the day. But Brock goes way beyond merely verbally lashing out, showing his true character as a bully and abuser. He is not lovable. Just rich and entitled.

Born Yesterday is a total package, from the moment the audience sees the grand scenic design from Daniel Lee Conway. He has extravagantly transformed the Ford’s stage into a classy two-level Washington hotel suite overlooking the Capitol. Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt clothed the cast in character-driven outfits. One cannot miss the change in Billie Dawn from the end of Act I to when she is first seen at the top of Act II.

Finally, let me add kudos to ensemble members Evan Casey, Matt Dewberry, Naomi Jacobson, and Jamie Smithson for their fine renditions of what become far more than mere secondary characters.

Kimberly Gilbert’s performance as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday places her into the highest, brightest constellations of actors in town. She is captivating. Her eyes shine when she delivers a line. Gilbert’s dance steps, twirls, and arm extensions as Billie recalls being in the Anything Goes chorus line are a complete joy. You will regret it if you miss her in Born Yesterday.

Yes, this show is a winner. And if you miss Born Yesterday, you will also miss the opportunity to see the “little” folk win out against the machers (overbearing and self-important folks). You don’t want that, do you?

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Born Yesterday plays through October 21, 2018, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 616-0270, or purchase them online.

Note: The production is recommended for ages 12 and older.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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