By James Foritano
Cambridge, MA – Written by Eve Ensler (“The Vagina Monologues”) and directed by Pesha Rudnick, the new production at the American Repertory Theater, “O.P.C.” — or Obsessive Political Correctness — is a rich blend of mordant comedy, high drama, pathos and not a few revelations.
Played by Kate Mulligan, Smith Weill, an ardent mainstream liberal, aspires just as ardently, arguably more ardently, than she espouses her principles, to gain a seat in the United States Congress. Her daughter, Romi, played by Olivia Thirlby, espouses the principles of liberal community that her mom, Smith, and dad Bruce, played by Michael T. Weiss, have bred into her by sterling and undeviating parental example.
Trouble is, Romi, named for the former imperial capital where she was conceived, embraces her liberalism with a deep, dyed-in-the-wool militancy that baffles and even frightens the otherwise intrepid Smith.
Smith’s world is one in which, according to the script, and the evidence of our senses, the Three S’s of Security, Status and Stability reign supreme. Everything in Smith’s meticulous campaign is engineered by Smith’s own acute and energetic sense of survival, as well as her handlers’ expertise in the multifold arts of compromise.
Romi, on the other hand, is an ingenuous, ingenious squatter queen who inhabits, splendidly, a world of her own making. Essentially, she is a Freegan who refuses to traffic in capitalist coin of the realm for her bread, her clothing or her shelter.
These two worlds collide volcanically when Smith enters her daughter’s abode, Romi’s first after a prolonged and errant adolescence, bearing as house-warming gifts exotic napkin holders for a well-set table that doesn’t exist. Romi’s world, you see, is literally hand-to-mouth, her one seat, a re-tooled shopping cart which doubles as a carrier for the nourishment she brings back from foraging in dumpsters with her fellow Freegans.
And it isn’t only napkin rings that upset this passionate mother/daughter cart, but the fierce thoroughness with which mother and daughter each embrace opposite strategies. To Smith a liberal and a woman, her arrival at a seat on the U.S. Senate is the Alpha moment of the conversion of our wayward democracy to a hard fought, democratic redemption; to Romi, sitting on her home-spun, dumper-foraged, Freegan bottom, we are all sharing a perilous Omega moment in the world’s history in which only a radical concert of wills can halt and deflect towards a higher or at least steadier state.
Sometimes these two titanic presences butt heads like bulls, while we, the audience, count the flying ‘napkin rings’ and shattered ambitions. Enriching this stark mother/daughter contest, richly personalized in itself, are echoes of broader cultural clashes.
Romi, although young in years, is reminiscent, in her wisdom, steadfastness and dedication of both fictive and real cultural heroes. She reminded this viewer of Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” harnessing herself to pull her tribe of refugees and their small possessions across a war-torn Europe — intent not only on bare survival, but also the creation of a better, broader self not so liable to self-destruct again.
There is also a Thoreauvian flair to Romi’s insistence on simplicity and frugality. She dwells beside her own pond that forms not only a mirror of self-inspection, but a crystal ball for cultural speculations and finally a place to bathe in and reap carefully-gleaned nourishment.
And when she stops butting her head against her daughter, the reigning political establishment, and, not least, her own overmastering ambitions, Smith also resonates as a cultural icon: the indefatigable mother of two daughters hungry for every kind of sustenance, and a would-be leading figure of what she sees as a populace adrift.
The struggles of both these figures, with themselves and their worlds, oscillates between heroic and downright human — if not downright silly. Just one small example would be the fruit-skin dresses that Romi crafts to keep herself and her Freegan tribe close to the earth and its gifts.
Following a twisted, but not unlikely logic, these costumes become the epitome of fashion to the politically correct, or just well connected, and a rich fuel for Smith’s campaign. Leading figures of every stripe parade on the nation’s screens and stages as plump pineapples, svelte peaches and juicy watermelons – refreshing their fashion ‘creds’ if deserting their sanity.
Deeply provocative, funny and solemn, O.P.C.’s daring swerves from close-up realism to winging fantasy are supported at every turn by superior acting which is in turn supported, in the best A.R.T. tradition, by a stagecraft that enfolds both actors and audience. The mise-en-scene, by moments one of towering apocalyptic grunge and center-spotlight glitz, is a complex presence both on stage and in our darkest forebodings/most strenuous hopes — truly the much-mooted ‘tipping point’ given flesh and fire.
(“O.P.C.” continues through January 4, 2015 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. For more information, including show dates and times, please call (617) 547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org.)