Theatre in the Grove's 'The City of Conversation' hits the stage
The 2020 election is in full swing, and so is Theatre in the Grove's newest political play.
"The City of Conversation" by Anthony Giardina tells the story of Hester Ferris who opens up her home in Washington, D.C., for political foes to lay down arms and raise a glass. But that all changes when her son brings home a conservative girlfriend and a shocking new world view, rocking Hester's world.
The audience can follow the Ferris family from the end of the Carter presidency through the Reagan era and to Obama's inauguration.
"We're just in a time right now where politics are so divisive," said Tanner Morton, the show's director. "Family dynamics are ruined because of political disagreements. … It's just a compelling story that I feel like is all too true in a lot of American lives and American families."
Morton wanted his cast to focus on the family aspect of the show, instead of the political drama that may get people in the door, he said.
He promises that the script doesn't lean in favor of any political party.
"(The play) gives some form of respect and legitimacy to both kind of viewpoints," Morton said. "Will it make people mad? Yeah. I mean, it depends on what kind of side of the aisle you're on and what your political preferences are."
As for casting, Morton admits it was difficult to fill the roles for the play. Not every actor is willing to drive to Forest Grove, he said.
But Dorinda Toner, who plays protagonist Hester Ferris, commutes an hour and a half each way from Vancouver, Washington.
"I think she's worth it," Toner said. "Plus, I think that this show is important. The script is important. I (also) like playing powerful women. It's a good feeling."
The most difficult part of her role?
"It's a lot of the political jargon that's not familiar to me," Toner said. "I've made the joke that it's a bit like playing a brain surgeon and having to memorize all of the parts of the operation."
Toner grew up in Canada and started off as a child actor and then was a professional musician. She switched to theater while in college and double majored in English literature and performance arts.
In addition to being the lead actor in the play, Toner has close to 30 years of directing under her belt.
When asked if it was difficult to step back and allow someone else to direct, she said, "I'm sure it is for some people, but not for me. … Tanner's been great about letting us find our way through things and then giving us suggestions to move toward his vision. It's been very collaborative."
Toner compared their collaboration to the central message of the play.
"The playwright's message is that we have to stop living in our own camps," she said. "We have to come together (and) have crucial conversations. It's really life imitating art and art imitating life in this scenario."
But there is one thing Morton was not willing to change his mind about — the script. The play does not include any adaptations or structural changes.
"It's really important to honor the playwright's intent with these words (and) push my actors to be as close to word perfect as I can, because this story is all about relationship and layers of nuance and specificity to detail," he said.
Morton also wanted to keep the casting as close as possible to the original description of the characters. This proved to be a challenge when he had to cast an African American man in a role, but did not have many willing to drive to the area.
With less than 10 days until opening night, Morton was still holding auditions for the role. But he remembers making a promise to himself to wait for the right fit.
"It's important to cast the roles exactly as they have been portrayed because what I love about this show is that it's not huge on action, but it's really rich with words and depth and detail," he said.
As for what he hopes the audience takes away from the play, he plans to leave that up to people's own interpretation of the show.
"When it comes to art, I don't want to put words into people's mouth or try and peddle any kind of particular message," Morton said. "Let the playwright tell the story and the audience will take what they will."
People can see "The City of Conversation" at Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, Feb. 2.
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