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From Ballot Box to the Box Office

'State of the Union,' playing all week in Orange County, pits politics against patriotism.

November 15, 2000|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonight through Sunday, a major party presidential candidate will be touring Orange County.

This man believes in saying plainly what he thinks about the issues. He wades in fearlessly, telling audiences what he thinks they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

He refuses to pander to voting blocs and interest groups. He aims to inspire the citizenry to put the greater good above its narrow gain. He thinks straight talk and an inspiring message of patriotism above self-interest can resonate with the voters and bring a splintered nation together.

When he wavers under the pressures of electoral politics, his idealistic wife is brings him back to his best self.

This man is Grant Matthews, and he is, of course, fictitious.

When Edith M. Schwartz, artistic director of Readers Repertory Theater, scheduled the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "State of the Union," for mid-November, she figured it would help put the presidential election in perspective.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 16, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Theaters--Readers Repertory Theater has been affiliated with Vanguard Theatre Ensemble for three years, not one year as reported in a story Wednesday.

Here would be a half-funny, half-sobering contrast between the idealistic politicking of the play's hero and the real-life power plays and grubbing for votes that leave many of us trudging to the polls every four years with little zest in our step or inspiration in our hearts--that is, if we aren't among the half of the populace too bored or alienated to even bother.

With the presidency still undecided and the state of the union--or at least its political elites--in a post-election tizzy, Schwartz thinks the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse should have even keener resonance for audiences who attend the upcoming free readings in local libraries and at the Vanguard Theatre in Fullerton.

"It pertains to why we have such polarization," she said Monday.

"State of the Union" premiered on Broadway late in 1945 with Ralph Bellamy as Matthews. Schwartz was drawn to it by the 1948 film version directed by Frank Capra and starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as Grant and Mary Matthews.

The play is set in 1946 and takes its premise from the political climate of that year: The Republicans, denied the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932, are looking for a candidate who can unseat FDR's successor, Harry S. Truman, in the 1948 election.

The GOP's prime kingmaker, James Conover, taps Matthews, who runs a big aircraft manufacturing company, as somebody not tainted by Washington's insider wrangling. He sets about coaching him toward the nomination, which means obeying his handlers' conventional wisdom rather than speaking from his heart. Intoxicated by the chance to be president, Matthews is tempted to compromise his ideals on the altar of electoral expediency. But in the end his best instincts win out.

This is no uplifting "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," however. Matthews realizes that a political race is no place for an idealist, and he bails out, figuring he can do more to enlighten the nation as an outspoken, uncompromising outsider with no ambitions for office than he can as a partisan candidate.

Schwartz says she has edited out some of the more obscure political references that would have been clear to audiences in 1946 but that today are lost to all but political history mavens.

Truman is alluded to as a bumbler ripe to be beaten (he loved the film, according to the Internet Movie Database), and Dwight Eisenhower's name gets dropped as a possible GOP candidate after Matthews withdraws. But for Schwartz, the playwrights' main point that opportunism elbows idealism aside in the electoral arena remains right up to date, even as a period piece.

Schwartz has been sold on play readings--in which actors have the text in front of them and no scenery or costumes are used--since she saw Charles Laughton star in a reading of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell" during the 1950s. The former Chapman University professor, a Laguna Hills resident, has produced scores of plays with Readers Repertory Theater. For the past year, it has been allied with Fullerton's Vanguard Theatre Ensemble.

"I call it 'theater of the mind,' " Schwartz said. "I tell the actors, 'If you can see it in your mind when you're reading it, the audience can hear that.' "

Her tastes run toward "socially significant plays, and plays that depict the climate of the times."

Coming attractions include "Rosmersholm," a rarely produced Henrik Ibsen play, in January; "Pride's Crossing" by Tina Howe in February; Athol Fugard's "Valley Song" in March; "The American Clock," by Arthur Miller in April; and in May "Kindertransport," Diane Samuels' play about children sent to England to escape the Holocaust.

SHOW TIMES

"State of the Union," 7 p.m. at Crown Valley Library, 30341 Crown Valley Parkway, Laguna Niguel. Also Thursday, 7 p.m. at the Newport Beach Public Library, 1000 Avocado Ave.; Friday, 7 p.m. at Mesa Verde Library, 2969 Mesa Verde Ave., Costa Mesa; Saturday, 7 p.m. at Mission Viejo Public Library, 25209 Marguerite Parkway; Sunday, 1 p.m. at Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. All shows free. (949) 206-9674.

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