Dallas — There is something about a last name that defines married women. Take, for instance: Kennedy, Jackie or Roosevelt, Eleanor. The public knows them primarily from the complicated reference point of their unfaithful, in-the-spotlight political husbands, rather than from their own individual achievements. In the case of Clinton, Hillary, it is a name we are all too familiar within recent U.S. political history; a name who lost the 42nd presidential election in 2017 to one of the most nefarious characters in history.
But Lucas Hnath’s play Hillary and Clinton is not that story.
This one took place what seems like eons before, in 2008, and focuses on the first serious woman presidential candidate in the United States. However, this play—having its area premiere by Second Thought Theatre—is not about history; it is herstory told from an intimate point of view on one winter’s night, on a Sunday evening, January 2008 in a New Hampshire hotel room during the primaries. In an unexpected win, Hillary sweeps the state against her then opponent, The Other Guy (Barack Obama), who would later win the presidential election. As nights go, this was a fateful one followed by defeat, a defeat that some say (and the play suggests) was based on her inability to break from the image of that other Clinton, her husband, who has marked her existence, one which includes a very public shame for all concerned named Monica.
In the opening scene, Stormi Demerson as Hillary makes eye contact with the audience by framing what we are about to see is just one of many infinite possibilities in many possible universes, one of many possible realities, where there may be many other Earths, other Hillaries and other Bills. Thus, through this distancing device the piece breaks the fourth wall while simultaneously drawing the audience into an intimate space and situation. The multiple-possibilities framework allows the audience to get comfortable with the fact that an African-American woman is standing before us playing an historical personality who is blatantly Anglo, one who is presently still among the living. It’s a bit like asking us to believe that a younger Judi Dench could have played Oprah Winfrey. Yet, I am certain that Dench could have achieved this in a certain framework and we would have believed; just as Demerson owns Hillary to the core, and we believe her.
The hotel room is scantily staged with one bed, an empty picture frame above it, with another set of empty frames that suggest large windows, and a desk. The rug, trash can, refrigerator and bathroom areas are simply drawn and their names stamped on the floor. No backstage exists, thus when offstage, characters Bill and Mark sit on plain chairs off to one side of the set. The Other Guy does make an entrance; Hillary remains on stage the entire run. Minimalism meets functionality in the best tradition of constructivist design.
There is, nevertheless, a more interesting type of social constructionism at play here, one which centers on the notion that human beings rationalize their experience by creating models of the social world and share and perpetuate these models through language. This seems to be what this play delves upon: it questions that deeply personal yet very public construction of two personae involved in the most intimately hellish of relationships: a marriage that involves politics.
We see Demerson’s Hillary dressed in a power red casual top as a complex mixture of strength, weakness, bravado, pending defeat and humanity that interacts with Barry Nash’s Bill. Nash embodies a Bill that, like Hillary, does not replicate but shows the essence of a confident, charismatic winner comfortable in the mucky gray areas of unethical comportment, yet still remains affable and approachable in athletic wear. Jim Kuenzer as Mark, the political campaign manager, hinges a triangle of political and emotional power plays. Sam Henderson as The Other Guy (Barack Obama) plays a smart and affable opponent, one who is comfortable in his own skin and that of high stakes politics. In the face of dwindling finances and low numbers on the polls, will this Hillary cave in and accept second place as the Vice Presidential candidate?
Other than stellar casting, thoughtful directing by Laura Colleluori, understated lighting (Aaron Johansen) and unobtrusive sound design (Preston Grey) and costuming (Melissa Panzarello), without a doubt it is Hnath’s writing that shines through this intimate and stressful evening. This was an earlier play written not long after the 2008 election by the playwright who would become known for The Christians and A Doll’s House, Part 2, but had its world premiere in Chicago in 2016 after developmental productions.
The tropes makes us aware that we are watching an artificial construction (a play), in one of many possible universes (an Earth that may or may not be exactly like ours). Demerson as Hillary breaks the fourth wall once again by addressing the audience informing us “End of Act 1,” although there is not an intermission. Furthermore, what this piece does best is to allow the actors to breathe and develop characters in their own unique ways, unrestricted by the convention of realistically casting actors who possess a physical likeness to the historical figures. This is not a matter of race, but of physical likeness. Once the binding trope of physical likeness is unleashed, this opens up the possibility of cross-racial casting. As such this piece has life; a life that director Colleluori faithfully fans.
While Hillary and Clinton does not reveal earth-shattering secrets about this famous couple, there is a fundamental one. When push comes to shove in the long run, the adage “to thine own self be true” still holds. And for this, we have Hnath’s words and Demerson’s Hillary and Nash’s Bill to show us the quietly heroic ways of any marriage, past the public lights of scandals and the many spins of political careers.
» Dr. Teresa Marrero is senior Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas, Denton, currently serving as its Graduate Advisor. She is a steering committee member of the Latinx Theatre Commons, and served as convening program organizer for the 2017 Encuentro of the Americas at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.