When I last saw Jada Suzanne Dixon, it was in White Guy on the Bus at Curious, and she was a single mother, a nursing student traveling by bus to visit her brother in prison, a poor and powerless woman who’s eventually confronted by a wrenching dilemma. Dixon couldn’t be more different in Meridith Friedman’s The Firestorm, presented by Local Theater Company. Here she’s Gaby, a poised, highly educated lawyer and wife to Patrick, a politician running for the governor’s office.
When we first meet Gaby, she’s absorbing information about Michelle Obama at the urging of Patrick’s communications director, Leslie. What can she learn from the way Michelle dresses and does her hair, from the way her comments and mannerisms were originally perceived as she worked to support her husband’s career? What will the public expect of Gaby, a black woman married to a white politician? Are her privileged background, elegance and manifest intelligence a hindrance or a help? A more important question arises before the evening is over. How will she react — as a public figure and privately, as a wife — when information leaks out about a racist college prank that Patrick once played? The way she handles the revelation will decide whether his career continues its swift rise or tanks.
The political talk in The Firestorm is smart, savvy and often very amusing, and the play draws attention to the role-playing and dishonesty endemic to nearly all political campaigns. Leslie is a hoot, and Iona Leighton’s portrayal is fantastic, charming and bright. This girl may feel some level of political idealism, but a far stronger motivator for the long hours she puts into the job is her longtime crush on Patrick. She’s no dummy, though, nor is she fundamentally dishonest. She knows she’s the purveyor of half-truths and illusions; she understands why Gaby treats her with wariness and a tinge of contempt, and somehow she maintains an essential sunniness throughout. Timothy McCracken gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a politician torn between genuine feeling and ambition. And Maduka Steady’s low-burning anger as Jamal, the man Patrick wronged, is very effective.
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But politics isn’t the primary focus of this play, which lacks the biting humor of, say, HBO’s Veep and never deals with any specific political issue. The racial exploration doesn’t go that deep, either — except for the one startling moment, beautifully played by Dixon, when Gaby’s rage and frustration finally find passionate expression. The real focus of The Firestorm is Gaby and Patrick’s complicated marriage. It’s clear they love and deeply understand each other — their teasing banter in the early scenes is perfect — and yet there are pitfalls, areas almost too dangerous to venture into, and in some ways each partner remains a profound mystery to the other. Patrick himself isn’t sure whether part of his original attraction to Gaby stemmed from an awareness of the way an African-American wife could burnish his image. And Gaby, too, wonders if she wasn’t attracted, at least in part, by Patrick’s power and ambition.
Local has joined the National New Play Network, through which emerging playwrights are given productions — rolling world premieres — at several nonprofit theaters around the country. The Firestorm received good reviews when it was shown in Dallas and Chicago, and director Pesha Rudnick’s polished production should continue the trend.
The Firestorm, presented by Local Theater Company through November 13, Carsen Theatre, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder. For information, call 303-444-7328 or go to localtheatercompany.org