Cast, costumes breathe life into PTC’s comedic ‘State’

Posted Oct. 27, 2008, at 5:47 p.m.

Back when the primary season was just beginning, it must have seemed like a great idea to stage the 1946 play “State of the Union” just before the nation was preparing to pick a new president.

There’s no way Penobscot Theatre Company’s Producing Artistic Director Scott R.C. Levy could have known that voter fatigue would have set in by mid-September and politics — today’s or those of some 60 odd years ago — would be the last thing on the mind of the electorate as October drew to a close.

Levy, however, should have known that 21st-century theatergoers don’t have the patience or the attention span for a three-act play unless it moves like a farce on fire the way “Noises Off” usually does.

The production of “State of the Union” that opened Friday at the Bangor Opera House showed off the absolute best PTC has had to offer under Levy’s guidance. It also revealed the drawback of putting talented but nonprofessional local actors onstage next to longtime members of Actors Equity whose idea of hell is being stuck in regional theater with a guy who doesn’t know his lines.

“State of the Union” is the story of wealthy industrialist Grant Matthews’ run for the presidential nomination in the 1948 primary. Along the way he learns what compromises he will and won’t make with party bosses and interest groups to win. He also falls in love again with his wife, Mary, and finally sees how his mistress, Kay Thorndyke, a divorced newspaper mogul, has manipulated him.

Nearly all of the problems with PTC’s production are inherent in the script and despite the fine work of a mostly outstanding cast, they simply could not be overcome. Few in the audience got the political jokes about long-dead presidential candidates Wendell Wilkie, Henry Wallace or Robert Taft. The glossary inserted in the program to help shed some light on these and other offstage characters used print so tiny even young eyes had difficulty reading it.

Although the pressures on candidates from interest groups and party regulars have not changed that much over the last six decades, the role of women in society has undergone a dramatic transformation. Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is on the campaign trail with her young children in tow.

Mary Matthews leaves hers at home with the household staff to be by her husband’s side. Thorndyke, Grant’s mistress, can be a behind-the-scenes power broker but not a candidate. The fact that she’s divorced also signaled something a bit unsavory about her character in 1946.

Bill Timoney and Leeanne Hutchinson gave outstanding performances as Grant and Mary Matthews. There was a lot about their relationship and his dalliances that went unsaid. Both actors beautifully portrayed the turbulent undercurrent of slights and hurts that are inevitably part of long relationships.

Timoney adeptly brought to life a man unsure of how many compromises he should or could make to win. The actor, best known for playing Alfred Vanderpool on “All My Children” in the 1980s, portrayed a man unmoored and unsure of his moral center, buffeted by party bosses and special interest groups.

Hutchinson created such a delightful, interesting woman it was hard to understand why her husband ever strayed from her. The actress’s Mary was a fountain of energy, full of hope and optimism. She also turned out to be his moral anchor. What the actress did best was bring to life a woman created by but comfortable in her time.

Timoney and Hutchinson fashioned an intricate emotional tango for these characters. It was lovely to watch until they were tripped up by Jim Pendergist in the role of James Conover, the Republican Party chair.

Pendergist, an Ellsworth-based actor who is the grandfather of eight, looked and talked the part of a 1940s political operative. On opening night, it was obvious that he did not know his lines. Other characters, most often Grant or Mary Matthews, would speak to him and a long pause would follow before Conover would speak.

About 15 minutes could have been knocked off the running time of the nearly three-hour piece if he’d had his part down cold. As far as character development went, Pendergist held his own with the professionals that he shared the stage with more than any other local actor. By the next performance, the problem most likely will be solved, but Hutchinson, Timoney and the audience deserved better on opening night.

Theatergoers who admire Angela Lansbury’s performance in the film version of “State of the Union” should be prepared for the role to be substantially smaller onstage. A.J. Mooney is the tough but attractive Kay Thorndyke, a woman holding her own in a male-dominated world. There’s absolutely nothing soft or subtle about her and Mooney beautifully portrays the woman’s man-eating tendencies to the hilt.

As often as Pendergist slowed down the action, Arthur Morison, Dominick Varney, Hans-Stefan Ducharme and Alison Cox nearly doubled the pace each time they stepped onstage. Their portrayals of supporting characters coaxed some of the biggest laughs from the audience. On opening night, these actors literally put theatergoers on the edge of their seats and reminded the audience that “State of the Union” is a comedy.

The only word for the costumes Lex Liang created for Mary and Kay is luscious. When Hutchinson walked onstage in a white ball gown in the second act, the entire audience — men and women alike — gasped. When the character entered her living room in the third act wearing that shimmering slinky, clingy number, the oohs and aahs stopped the action cold.

Coco Channel should rise from her grave and either sue or worship Liang for his knockoffs of her suits that Mooney wore. The tight skirts and form-fitting jackets seemed to be keeping Kay contained. After all, if she wore loose clothing she might do something utterly outrageous — like run for president herself.

Rarely have the costumes defined the characters, more so the women than the men, so perfectly. The addition of costume builder Brian C. Hemesath to PTC’s backstage crew obviously has allowed Liang to do his most spectacular work so far in Bangor.

Erik D. Diaz’s set and Shon Causer’s lighting design were stunning, beautifully and perfectly functional. Set changes ran smoothly and quietly and did not slow down the action.

For the most part, “State of the Union” is an outstanding production of a script that simply has not survived the test of time to be truly relevant to voters in the 21st century.

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