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'Primary' Vanquishes the Villain of Local Politics

Gracie Gardner’s new play pits a challenging daughter against an aspiring politician mother.

Photo by PJ Norton

It's 1999 in suburban Connecticut, and against the backdrop of Bill Clinton's impending impeachment, "true conservative" schoolteacher and mother Laura decides that now is the perfect time to run for office. But her family is barely scraping by as it is, and as her campaign takes a financial and emotional toll on her family, nine-year-old Sophie knows it's her job to save her family. Because she's a long-lost Sailor Scout from the Sailor Moon anime, and she has the power to defeat the monster her mother has become.

Despite all its quirks, Gracie Gardner's Primary is a slice-of-life family drama about a typical American family struggling to make ends meet. For the Hollisters, that means private school for Sophie, whose asthma, epilepsy and hinted-at learning disorders mean that public education has failed her too many times, and Laura is determined to reform the school system entirely once she is elected as a State Representative. But the issues quickly fade into the background as Laura's drive to win far overtakes how much she actually cares about composting or her constituents' other concerns, and she soon falls into a spiral of anxiety she can't break out of.

Though it gets off to a rather slow start, the strongest moments of this production directed by Alex Keegan are in its quiet familial moments, especially once the stakes have been raised and greater things are at risk—Sophie's health, Laura and Arthur's marriage and even campaign manager Nick's future career. A powerful hidden hopelessness afflicts all of the adults as they struggle through one day at a time, and before long everyone is questioning whether politics really can make a difference in their lives. And then there is Sophie.

What Primary most lacks is a gradual revelation of Sophie's Sailor Scout destiny in a similar manner to our slow discovery of her disabilities. Instead, within this largely naturalistic play, the two truly surreal moments, while entertaining, fail to integrate into the rest of the piece. If Primary is really the story of a little girl who becomes a superhero to save her mom from herself, we should see Sophie's reality reflected throughout the play, not just in the occasional dream sequence.

Still, this production by Sanguine Theatre Company's commitment to detail and realism is impressive, from the hassle of weather-appropriate clothing in a New England winter and the gradual passage of time as indicated through clothing to a set that positively screams 1999, VHS tapes, Troll puzzle and all. The story of the Clintons in 1999 as told through CNN coverage throughout the play serves as a foil for the Hollister family, also struggling through family issues under the public gaze leveled at political families, though ultimately the link between Laura and Hillary falls a little flat.

And while you may be left wondering what TV channel could possibly be playing Sailor Moon 24/7, the show's narrative of saving the world intercut with everyday girlyness strikes a chord for Sophie (Casey Nadzam), who desperately craves the normal life she has never been allowed to have. Mom Laura (Jody Christopherson) is a refreshing mixture of energy and growing cynicism over the political process, though Primary suffers from a flaw common to many stories about Republicans written by liberal theatermakers—insisting that traditional conservative values are important to its characters without really explaining which issues or why.

Brian Miskell as Nick is an amusing counterpoint to the Hollister family, as serious and focused as he is clearly under-qualified. But standing head and shoulders over the rest is Kevin Argus as dad Arthur, whose internal conflict between the desire to support his wife's dreams and his overwhelming fear that the wellbeing of his daughter Sophie will be sacrificed in the process easily makes him the most sympathetic character in the play. Prone to drinking coffee on the couch in his underwear and speaking through the entire lyrics of a Bruce Springsteen song, he is also one of the most amusing dads you will see onstage.

An interactive sound design and active, engaging scene transitions keep the energy up in what could otherwise have become a slow play of short scenes in which four characters do little other than talk to one another. The TV could have been more present throughout the transitions, just as the specters of Hillary Clinton and Sailor Moon could have been better incorporated into the piece. Still, Primary is an emotional story that audiences will have no trouble delving into, and you will soon learn that the traditional American family is far more than it appears.

Primary plays at IRT through April 24.

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