The Cuban Missile Crisis. The civil rights movement. The setting is 1936-1965, America and beyond. Characters: Mary, Jack, Cicely, Cord and Jackie. The cover of the program: wary eyes and a sparkle from the White House.
“Change Agent” hands out clues about its premise with deliberate obfuscation. With a touch of detective work, you could identify the woman who “influenced American politics – and therefore, world events – through her friendships and closeness to power”, but it seems Arena Stage is hoping some will let this new piece surprise. An intimate cast of five – with uniquely diverse, color-blind and disability-inclusive casts – tells a whirlwind tale of artistry, tragedy, the seduction of power and the threat of nuclear armageddon. But simply put, “Change Agent” explores and imagines how the life of painter Mary Pinchot Meyer intersected, intertwined and influenced the life of John “Jack” Fitzgerald Kennedy, from adolescence to death. .
… fascinating … brings challenges and questions to the American canon, wrapped in beautiful performances.
Winner of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the play is written and directed by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize nominee Craig Lucas. His dialogue flows like poetry, whether it’s a lyrical monologue or a bouncy repartee. Packing three decades of life into one evening of theater is no small feat, and the play’s debut moves at such a frantic pace that we feel like we’re being catapulted into Mary’s life. She is fifteen years old in a dance school; a student at Vassar College; at the United Nations Conference in San Francisco and happily married to Cord (Jeffrey Omura); and unhappily married as cynicism embitters her husband. It’s only with the introduction of Jackie Kennedy (played by Kathryn Tkel with effortless poise and that famously unfathomable accent) that the story finds a more natural rhythm. While the final revelations perhaps explain the jarring quality of earlier sections, the payoff is minimal. Yet, once the “agent of change” takes flight, it is captivating.
Of course, there are the Kennedys. Playboy Jack (Luis Vega) still manages an endearing earnestness and vulnerability, even when his political cowardice enables warmongering and segregation and his wounds hurt Jackie. Jack is certainly not the heroic statesman built into our national consciousness. However, his martyrdom remains absolute in “Change Agent”.
A confidante of both Jack and Jackie, tension mounts between Mary’s friendship with Jackie and her cursed attachment to Jack. As Mary (Andrea Abello) shines with empathy and righteousness – a feisty pacifist committed to integration and diplomacy – the specters of the surveillance state and conspiracy escape from her husband, the officer of the CIA intelligence, Cord Meyer. Mary and Cicely d’Autremont – her friend from Vasser and the wife of the CIA’s James Angleton – struggles with the moral implications of their husbands’ work as the names Dulles, Hoover and McCarthy take on a sinister life.
As any story starring Jackie Kennedy deserves, Alejo Vietti’s gorgeous costumes make it easy to sweep back in time, with Mary (Andrea Abello) changing her outfit often on stage. A dress is taken off, a coat is buttoned and the years pass. Unified by a palette of grays and silvers, chic dresses and suits sometimes find contrast with a brighter scarf, pea coat or dress. Whether at an inaugural ball or on the golf course, Abello provides the bespoke outfits that suit our rich and powerful cast of characters.
The vacant stage – with only a border of underlit benches, an expanse of green grass, and an adjustable center pedestal that can sink down to create a dance floor or rise up to make a bed – relies on the design of the sound and lighting (by Broken Chord and Cha See respectively), as well as the audience’s imagination, to evoke a mix of times and places. Rumbles of thunder, lightning and candlelit lanterns create a cabin in a thunderstorm, while a distant squeal of tires evokes the road near the family home.
Most striking in the Wilson Chin-designed set is a massive angled frame suspended above the stage. To the rear, brutalist concrete panels evoke Cold War architectural aesthetics. These scenic elements merge with Catie Hevner-designed projections, as the frame provides a screen for date and location headers. Panels are a canvas for music videos, backdrops and abstract paintings. Contrary to the lamentable trend of flashy projections that overshadow the actors, Hevner uses restraint and artistry to complement without distracting from the action.
I will leave it to the historians to analyze the facts of the fiction in the scenario researched with precision, which offers nine pages of appendix on its precisions and its imagination. Although the finale is gripping and unambiguous, not everyone will agree with the play’s eerie conclusion. As Lucas’ script charges, “government surveillance, disinformation blizzards, vote suppression, white supremacy, and gun proliferation…” is an “America’s version of [we] everyone knows it only too well. Yet conspiracy remains taboo to speak aloud. Even with doubts, “Change Agent” brings challenges and questions to the American canon, wrapped in fine performances.
Duration: 2h20 with a 15 minute intermission.
Notice: For ages 16 and up
“Change Agent” runs through March 6, 2022 on the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Tickets can be purchased online here.