One Nation Under
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 28, 2008
One Nation Under is a contemporary tragedy, set in 2005, about two mothers and their sons. Arlene Stanton is a federal circuit court judge. She's enormously wealthy, thanks to her second husband, residing in a swanky Manhattan neighborhood at Park and 72nd. She's being vetted for a possible nomination to the Supreme Court by one of the Republican administration's key behind-the-scenes operatives, a man named Wesley Hanna. Her only child, Eric, is a genius Internet hacker who has just signed a three-year contract with Halliburton to do something high-tech in Fallujah; having missed the dot-com boom, Eric is looking for a fast track to wealth on his own, and he's decided the risk of being in Iraq is outweighed by the ranch he'll be able to retire to when he comes home.
So that's one of the mothers. The other is Darcee Washington, an African American army reservist and single mom living in a building in the South Bronx that probably should be condemned. Her boy, Chester, is two and suffering from a bad case of asthma. Darcee joined the reserves to get health benefits for her son. When the play begins, she is shipping out to Iraq, leaving Chester in the care of her sister, Lilifreida.
The Washingtons and Stantons cross paths when Wesley uses his influence to get Eric a permanent bodyguard ; Darcee is pulled from her current assignment, maintaining supply inventories, to 24/7 duty protecting Eric. Eric falls for Darcee instantaneously, and as he learns about Chester's situation, he sends his mother text messages, asking her to help improve it. And so Arlene dispatches her clerk, Quinta Maxwell, to the South Bronx apartment.
I don't want to say too much more about what happens in the story. I told you it was a tragedy: things do not end happily for either mother, and I don't think it gives too much away to say that Lepcio's strong humanist bent ensures that we understand that the family less equipped economically to deal with trouble bears the brunt of it. One of the lessons of One Nation Under—probably the most important one—is that we are currently living in a nation where the rich provide for themselves, and one way they do that is by dispatching the poor to do the dirty work for them.
But there's something more subtle and interesting at the heart of this play: the real conflict here is the one revolving around the relationship between Quinta and Lilifreida, the two women who are not mothers but are very much caretakers for the families they represent as well as the go-betweens bringing the families together. Both women have made choices to compromise themselves in order to get what they need—Lilifreida by selling stolen goods, Quinta by doing the bidding of a social conservative with whose positions she does not generally agree. It is the complexity of these women's circumstances that really propels the play, and their actions and reactions as the tragedy explodes around them that give it emotional heft.
Tye Blue's realization of the play for Three Chicks Theatre is well-paced and well-thought-out, presented on a simple unit set by Brian Howard that neatly delineates the main locations—Arlene's home/office, Darcee and Lilifreida's apartment, and Eric's barracks in Iraq—without requiring complicated scene changes. The cast of six is generally fine, with Jon Eiswerth's Eric and Chrystal Stone's Lilifreida bringing the most energy to the stage, creating characters that feel entirely fleshed-out and with whom we can easily empathize. Toks Olagundoye shows us passion simmering under Quinta's surface, but hers is a character who seldom acts decisively. Chante Lewis is believable as the single mom Darcee, while Joel Haberli fulfills Wesley's function as the villain of the piece. Olivia Negron, however, never seemed to get under the skin of Arlene, which made it hard for me to feel for her as the play reached its tragic climax.
One Nation Under succeeds best at reminding us just how disparate any two people—say, two mothers—can be in 21st century America. In this Election Year, when we are contemplating the direction our nation will take, this is a valuable and important lesson to remember.