In organizational structure, a “change agent” is someone who inspires and influences others. In chemistry, it can be a substance altering element, like a drug. In Craig Lucas’ world premiere play, at Arena Stage through March 6, it’s both.
Part of Arena’s Power Play Initiative, which commissions playwrights to explore “American stories of power and politics,” “Change Agent” is a fictional account of the decades-long relationship between John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Mary Meyer, a painter and Washington housewife who pushes Kennedy to act on their shared progressive values. She prods, inspires and consoles him. She sincerely loves him, and she introduces him to LSD.
The play holds up the thicket of mid-century American politics as an example of the dangers of disillusionment, distrust and the Deep state. It’s another entry to the canon of presidential plays that looks for lessons from the recent past: “Stuff Happens” by David Hare, “Ride the Tiger” by William Mastrosimone, “All the Way” by Robert Schenkkan, “Scenes from Court Life” by Sarah Ruhl and Mike Barlett’s upcoming “The 47th.”
A cursory knowledge of the era helps, though Lucas’s storytelling is generally clear as the plot travels through a warren of events and names: JFK’s early years and political ascent; the creations of the UN and the CIA; the Bay of Pigs; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the 22nd of November, 1963; Josephs Kennedy, Stalin, and Alsop; Nikita Khrushchev; Allen Dulles; James Angleton; Timothy Leary; and many more.
These events are all offstage, though. Lucas’ focus is the personal costs and challenges historic actors face while in the bedroom, on the golf course, on the C&O Canal. ‘Actors’ is appropriate. Lucas runs a strong thread of meta-theatricality through the play, the characters aware of their roles as performers in the cycles of both news and history. The design pays off in an uplifting meta-physical plea from the past to meet our current moment.
The cast is up to the challenge. As Mary, Andrea Abello radiates optimism and intelligence. She has a gift for seeing what others cannot, or choose not to, see. Luis Vega plays JFK as a charmer who hides his vulnerabilities with wit and sex appeal. Kathryn Tkel is particularly alluring as Jackie, a wistful survivor whose carefully employed nonchalance can be heartbreaking.
An eminent playwright and director, both on stage and screen, Lucas has frequently picked up where Arthur Miller left off in exploring the sticky mess of sex and politics, the relationship between the domestic and the global, the dangers of communal fear and behind-closed-door dealings and the vital need for clear vision. It’s a lot to fit into a play, but Lucas does not spare in his scope or ambitions.
The play has its faults. An occasional line falls flat. Mary’s penchant for speaking in aphorisms occasionally grates (“When I decide I have an enemy, I’m on the road already to becoming them”). The infidelity and sex jokes play well but are unbecoming after a while.
Every aspect of the production is beautiful to watch. Wilson Chen’s set, an off-kilter concrete rectangle floating above a wooden plaza, evokes Brutalist Washington, a courtroom and a stage. Lucas uses the space to great effect, pinning his actors in corners to duke it out, or bringing them center stage for an aria. His experiences working on tight dramas (such as “Prelude to a Kiss”) and sweeping musicals (including “Light in the Piazza”) are both evident. Cha See’s lights run the spectrum from the harsh glare of the Washington spotlight, candle-lit moments of refuge, to LSD-induced hallucinations.
The projections by Caite Hevner show us Mary’s paintings, eye-catching abstract expressionist works with dashes of Monet and de Kooning. Given the play’s nearly 30-year scope, costume designer Alejo Vietti presents a Georgetown boutique-worth of stunning clothes, all of which immediately transport us back to the era: women in heels and full skirts, men in plaid sport coats and brogues, all in a cool palette of grays and slate blues.
While not shying away from the darkness of then, or now, “Change Agent” is a call to dream once again of the society we want to create and be the change we want to see in the world.
“Change Agent” runs at Arena Stage through March 6. For tickets and more information, click here.