A lot of Americans are looking for a savior this campaign season. Fed up with our choices, some have been hoping another candidate would offer himself (or herself) up as an alternative.
How about Miss Georgia?
In Lauren Gunderson’s three-person political play, a beauty queen (Katherine Drew) turns out to be smartest person in the room. That would be a hotel room, where conservative Senate aide (Donna Scott) and liberal activist/blogger (Glynnis O’Donoghue) wake up after a night of revelry during the Miss America pageant. And they’re at each other’s throats immediately.
Gunderson, 33, is one of the country’s brightest young playwrights. She’s in the top 10 of American Theatre Magazine’s 2015-’16 list of most produced playwrights (when only about 22 percent of plays produced in this country are by women) and won a 2016 Dramatists Guild of America Award.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“The Taming” is her riff on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” and features divisive politics – set in a place you might not expect.
“I’ve always been fascinated by pageant culture and its idealization of a certain kind of femininity,” Gunderson said by phone from her home in San Francisco. That setting, she said, helps her address “the problem with what we assume about women – and especially about beautiful women.”
In this case, “the political genius is the one you assume is a complete ditz.”
Miss Georgia has beauty and brains. She’s out to forge an alliance between liberals and conservatives – personified here by a bleeding heart blogger (whose heartfelt cause is the plight of the endangered North American giant pygmy panda shrew) and a tough-talking Senate aide (whose boss is a family-values philanderer).
The verbal assaults come faster than The Donald could spit out “Little Mario.”
“If I cry about it, it must be true,” says the liberal.
“There’s no such thing as a liberal patriot,” says the conservative.
“Help me, God,” pleads the conservative at one point.
“It’s me, higher power,” says the liberal at the same time.
The liberal says Jesus would’ve been a Democrat. The Republican swears even her uterus is conservative.
Both political parties get mocked mercilessly, leaving audiences wondering about Gunderson’s own political leanings. “I’m about as liberal as they come,” she said. “But I enjoy poking fun at myself. When I was writing the play, I thought: Liberals need a good thwacking, too.”
Director Tonya Bludsworth has told her actresses: “Get the laughter out of your systems now.”
“They’re constantly cracking each other up in rehearsal because the dialogue is wickedly funny,” she said. “It really is brilliant writing.”
Gunderson, a Decatur, Ga., native, brushed up on American history while writing the play. She says she developed a crush on James Madison, whom she calls the nerdiest of the Founders. (Having a crush on a Founding Father is now a thing, thanks to Broadway’s hottest ticket – a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton.) She said he was “just obscure enough” to make him the breakout star of the Act II time-travel dream sequence.
“Madison worried about warring factions – about two sides not working together,” she said. “The campaign we’re seeing today – that’s Madison’s nightmare.”
The Founding Fathers had fierce disagreements when first shaping our country, “but they always respected each other,” she said. “The founders actually wanted dissension. That’s how they knew an idea would last – when there was opposition.”
While the play has an all-female cast and is set at a beauty pageant, it’s not for women only. “The pageant is the backdrop, but most of the action takes place with the characters locked in a hotel room,” O’Donoghue said. “The issues they deal with affect all of us – political discord, stereotypes, guilty love of pork.”
Gunderson calls the current election an “overflowing clown car of madness” and thinks now’s the perfect time to laugh at ourselves and our imperfect two-party system. But there’s a serious undercurrent to all the humor: “Our differences can make us stronger.”
Oh, and Gunderson’s family will attend the regional premiere of her work. Her mom grew up in Belmont, and her uncle lives in Rock Hill, she said. “I’ve got a lot of Carolina in me.”
When: March 31-April 16 at the Charlotte Art League, with post-show discussions immediately after the April 3 and April 6 performances, hosted by Red Boot Coalition founder Molly Barker.
Where: Charlotte Art League, 1517 Camden Road in South End.
Tickets: $22 in advance, $25 at the door.