Just in time for the Democratic National Convention, this year's Potomac Theatre Festival delivers a fascinating, if cynical, look at the specific mechanisms by which power corrupts.
Each summer, the festival - which runs through Aug. 8 - stages shows with political messages, when theater pickings traditionally are slim. This year's slate explores a conundrum seemingly foisted upon our leaders: They can be ethical or they can be effective, but not both.
Is it any wonder that under this system, personal morality can seem a costly indulgence, even the height of selfishness? Is it a surprise that our leaders lie, cheat and steal? And when wrongdoers are exposed, might the American public's self-righteous condemnation miss the point?
These provocative questions are asked most incisively in a fine production of Gore Vidal's The Best Man. Himself an unsuccessful candidate for Congress, Vidal fashions antagonists who are polar opposites, and drapes them in red, white and blue.
William Russell, a highbrow intellectual bearing a not-coincidental resemblance to Adlai E. Stevenson, is expected to get his party's nod for U.S. president. Opposing him is Joseph Cantwell, a Southern good ole boy who is running partly on a platform of family values and will do whatever it takes to win. Both candidates are vying for the endorsement of the folksy and shrewd former president.
Director Richard Romagnoli wisely updates the plot (which is set in 1960) by changing the president from a man to a woman. Vivienne Shub imbues the character with the straight-talking charm, grandmotherly warmth and refusal to be cowed of Barbara Bush or former Texas Gov. Ann Richards. It's easy to understand this diminutive ex-president's grip on the public's affection.
Nigel Reed depicts his mud-slinging Senator Cantwell as a searing white light of a man, someone who has never entertained a self-doubt, and Liz Myers delivers an assured portrait of the senator's wife, a Southern belle who determinedly squelches her forebodings.
But the show belongs to Paul Morella as Russell. As the candidate struggles with his conscience, we can see in every wry curve of Morella's mouth and twist of his eyebrows his shifting emotional balance. Should he, too, become involved in the dirty business of invective and public accusation? Does the end ever justify the means?
These questions also are addressed in a truncated version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Sixteenth-century Vienna has become overrun by vice under the guidance of a too-lax duke. He steps down temporarily, but deputizes a minion, Lord Angelo, to crack the whip and restore order.
Angelo punishes all infractions, major and minor, with equal severity, condemning to death Claudio, a young man who impregnated his fiancee. But Angelo is blind to his own moral lapses. When Claudio's sister, Isabella, pleads for her brother's life, Angelo is determined to bed the beauteous novitiate.
The production has serious flaws. First, the young actors playing Claudio and Isabella are not yet up to two of the most difficult roles in the English language. Daniel Eichner seems no more worried about his impending death than he would of being grounded, and Cassidy Bree Freeman should express more anguish and tenderness, and less freezing scorn.
Even more distressing is the Chris Hayes' adaptation itself. Not only has it been chopped to 90 minutes, roughly half the original, Hayes' ending is the opposite of Shakespeare's.
The urge to tamper is understandable. To achieve a happy outcome, the Bard employs a deus ex machina, an outmoded device with little appeal for modern audiences because it smacks of divine intervention. It also raises troubling questions about the motives of the godly character hovering just out of sight. What kind of person observes human suffering, but waits until the last possible moment to save the day?
Ideally, Hayes would have rewritten his material from beginning to end (as Shakespeare did, when he borrowed plots from other authors) and given it a different title, indicating at most that the show is based on Measure for Measure. The audience contained young children who presumably can't tell real Shakespeare from faux. Misleading the audience members of tomorrow - now that's a real crime.
Perfect Pie, the final piece in the Potomac Theatre Festival, is the most accomplished and moving of the three shows, but it is not especially political, unless staging a play by a Canadian female playwright is in itself subversive.
Judith Thompson's drama concerns the reunion between two childhood friends who have not seen each other in the 30 years since they were separated by a tragedy. From the beginning, the capable Patsy, a farm girl who grows up to become a farm wife, takes care of her friend. Marie is poor, dirty and tormented by the neighboring children.
MaryBeth Wise is a marvel as the adult Patsy. Watch her slap together the dough that gives the play its title. Her hands demonstrate Patsy's strength and stability, while that character's inchoate longings are expressed in Wise's face.
Patsy's friend, Marie, manages to escape the small farming community. Though she becomes rich and famous, she is haunted by her early experiences. Helen Hedman is elegant and fragile as the adult Marie, as apt to shatter under pressure as her friend's flaky pie crust.
Perfect Pie also showcases the talents of four terrific young actresses who portray the friends as children and teens: Jennifer Driscoll, Laura Rocklyn, Tara Giordano and Lily Balsen.
The Potomac Theatre Festival is designed to give students at Vermont's Middlebury College a chance to act with pros, and one of the festival's many joys is the chance to watch talent unfurl like a banner in the breeze.
What: The Best Man, Perfect Pie and Measure for Measure
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
When: Various times through Aug. 8.
Tickets: $10 per show
Call: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org