BWW Review: Powerful Political and Historical Tension in ACT's World Premiere DAISY
In our current political climate where candidates regularly hurl insults at each other on things such as penis size it's hard to remember that politics used to be about the candidate's stand on issues as well. So when did that change? When did we go from building up our own candidate in an ad to tearing down the other candidate with scandal, derision and fear? ACT might have the answer to that with their world premiere play "Daisy" that takes a look into the creation of one of the most infamous political ads and one of the first attack ads ever created.
Based on true events, Sean Devine's play focuses on ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach whose creative team of Sid Meyers, Louise Brown and Aaron Ehrlich (Connor Toms, Kirsten Potter and Bradford Farwell) were tasked with coming up with TV ads to drive President LynDon Johnson to victory in 1964. What begins as an attempt to sell Johnson by the team quickly devolves in an attempt to tear down potential opponents Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller on orders from the White House specifically White House Liaison Clifford Lewis (Tre Cotten). And so when they bring on agoraphobic Sound Designer Tony Schwartz (Michael Gotch) the teams comes through with a brilliant ad based on an ad Schwartz had made two years prior and referred to as "Daisy" in which a little girl innocently counts petals on a flower which turns into a terrifying countdown of a nuclear explosion.
The ad, which you can easily find on You Tube, only aired once by the campaign due to public outrage but ultimately helpEd Johnson win by a landslide. But it also opened the door for attack ads like this to be common place in political campaigns. The play has an eerie similarity to our current political race making the issues brought up of campaigns using scandal and fear over issues and substance all the more relevant. And the tension brought up with those issues is wonderfully played with and interwoven in the racial and gender issues of the era by director John Langs. Issues which also bear too close of a resemblance to the issues of today.
The ensemble of the piece is quite tight with each of them beautifully bringing in perfect counterpoints to the conversation in their characters. R. Hamilton Wright as the head of the agency brings in the power, while Potter brings in the integrity. Toms brings in the confidence while Farwell supplies the fear. Cotten brings in the ambition and drive while Gotch provides the psychology and focus. And each of them manages it with a tremendous amount of honesty and realism never devolving their characters into archetypes or caricatures. Even Gotch, whose agoraphobic character could easily become over the top, manages to keep him true to life and in fact delivers one of the most interesting and engaging performances I've seen all year with his thoughtful and deliberate expressions and actions and laser focus.
The issues brought up in the show may not be comfortable ones but they are certainly engaging and powerful made all the more powerful by the well crafted and designed video projections from Tristan Roberson. I for one have been looking forward to this fascinating piece of historical theatre since it was announced and I'm happy to say it did not disappoint. And so with my three letter rating system I give ACT's "Daisy" a thoughtful YAY. Like it or not ads like "Daisy" are here to stay and it's our job to see through the smokescreen they create to get to the truth of the candidate. But it's winning plays like this which can shine a spotlight helping us to find what's important.
"Daisy" performs at ACT through August 7th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.