Walk into the Bangor Opera House this week and next, and you’ll be greeted by Grant Matthews, Republican candidate for president of the United States. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
The cardboard cutout of actor Bill Timoney as Grant Matthews, the lead character in Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 play, “State of the Union,” has stood, grinning and ready to kiss babies and shake hands, in the lobby for the past few weeks. The Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of the play, set to open in previews tomorrow, Oct. 22, has been on director Scott Levy’s mind for much longer than that, though.
“I decided to do this play before any of the other ones in the season,” said Levy. “It seemed so incredibly timely, since we are knee-deep in the midst of this presidential election. And I was really startled to discover that it’s only been produced professionally twice over the past decade.”
The play details the early months of the 1944 presidential election, and how the fictional Matthews went from wealthy industrialist to candidate for president. It’s about the primary process, which pits Matthews against the real-life candidate Thomas Dewey, who went on to lose the race against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“It’s a satire on the whole electoral system,” said Levy. “There are some lines in the play that really could be one and the same with something said by [Sen. John] McCain or [Sen. Barack] Obama last week. It shows how, in some ways, very little has actually changed, even after 60 years. You see how lobbies were very much a part of the process even back in 1944. The war has ended, but not totally, and they’re in the middle of an economic crisis. The parallels are striking.”
While the political issues are front and center, the flip side to the story is Matthews’ troubled personal life. He’s separated from his wife, Mary (Leann Hutchinson), and he has been having an affair with newspaper tycoon Kay Thorndyke (AJ Mooney), one of the individuals encouraging him to run for president.
“On a personal level, it’s about this guy trying to decide if this is really what he wants in his life,” said Timoney, a New York-based actor. “His marriage is falling apart. He’s a serial adulterer. There are a lot of factors at play.”
While there are those similarities between the events of the play and our current political climate, the play itself is a full-on period production. Costume designer Lex Liang painstakingly put together 45 full costumes of 1940s-style suits, dresses and uniforms. It’s one of the most ambitious productions, wardrobe-wise, that the PTC has done in years.
“There are 14 actors playing 20 characters, and there are 45 full costumes, 14 full suits,” said Levy. “Lex has re-created a fabulous Christian Dior suit for AJ’s character, Kay. It’s very much a period piece. It’s about a certain class of people, so there are tuxedos and maid outfits, and period furniture. Antiques Marketplace [in downtown Bangor] was a great resource.”
The PTC has also engaged the community with its Get Out The Vote effort. In August, they received a $25,000 grant from the Maine Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts to both stage the show, and host voter registration events at the Bangor Opera House. Additionally they offered production-related presentations to local schools, student matinees and in-school workshops.
“We’re a nonprofit, so we can’t take sides. But what we can do is register voters, and stress the importance of going out and voting,” said Levy, noting that volunteers at the theater had registered more than 20 new voters as of Oct. 14.
If there’s one element to “State of the Union” that stands above all the others, though, it’s that the political and the personal are often times very hard to separate.
“It’s essentially a comedy, but it really deals with the issues of the time. It says what’s on everyone’s minds. It’s very much like an episode of ‘The West Wing,’ in that you see the political process, but you also see what happens in people’s lives,” said Timoney. “It’s a big play. And it’s a very important play.”
The Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “State of the Union” opens in previews at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 and 23, with a grand opening set for 8 p.m. Oct. 24 at the Bangor Opera House. The play also runs at 2 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 5 p.m. Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, and at 8 p.m. Oct. 31. For more, visit www.penobscottheatre.org, or call 942-3333.