Bullying, gun control and abortion rights are just a few issues that get a town hall hearing in the regional premiere of Theresa Rebeck's O BEAUTIFUL at CT Rep. What sets this one apart from other political plays is that some of the founding fathers themselves and other historic figures stop by to weigh in on some of today's hottest topics.
In this New York area suburban community created by Rebeck (Dead Accounts, The Understudy, creator of TV's "Smash."), housewives gather for bake sales and share recipes, husbands collect guns and everyone watches "The Simon West Show," a sort of Glenn Beck-type (Laurence Lau) who preaches about protecting the right to bear arms in the face of a government that he sees as an enemy.
Ty Janaleris (Thomas Brazzle), an African-American teacher in the overwhelmingly white school, upsets parents and Principal Loomis (Kit Flannagan) when he supplements the approved text book with handouts to teach the kids high school history. Even a handout containing the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson is suspect because it hasn't been approved.
What the parents don't know is that their ideal world already doesn't exist for their kids. Alice Fletcher (Hannah Kaplan) is pregnant following a date rape by Luke Simpson (Ryan Marcone) who abandons her for new girlfriend Gwen Turner (Kate Mavis Zulauf). Unable to turn to parents (Darius Burkowski and Sarah Wintermeyer) who won't understand her desire for an abortion, she finds a friend in Jesus (Will Haden).
Meanwhile, Alice is so caught up in her own problems, she isn't able to help classmate Lennie Ryan (Coles Prince) who is being bullied by the students. Lennie had participated in the school's talent show where he flubbed the words to "O Beautiful." Ever since, he has been taunted and tortured by the other kids who post horrible things about him on the internet, barrage him with hateful text messages and beat him up.
When tragedy ensues, Alice finally speaks up, but the parents of the kids involved in the bullying turn on her. After all, she callEd Thomas Jefferson a rapist after reading one of the unapproved handouts and lied about having an abortion. Janaleris tries to help – against the advice of his wise sister, Sondra (a very engaging Whitney Andrews) – who warns him that he could lose his job.
Meanwhile, the themes of parental rights vs. women's rights, the Second Amendment and the intent of the Constitution, who should control the classroom curriculum and the place of religion in all of that, play out against the television program and various guests including Patrick Henry (Burkowski), Jefferson (Anthony J. Goes), John Adams (Michael John Improta), Alexander Hamilton (James Jelkin) and Benjamin Franklin (David McCann). Also dropping by during the action are Joan of Arc (Maggie Sulka) and St. Paul (McCann). Costume Designer Tiffany Delligatti and McCann really outdo themselves to create one of the most realistic Franklins I ever have seen.
Jesus hangs out too throughout the show (making some rather offensive statements along the way) becoming whatever each person desires him and believes him to be. Haden does a nice job of making Jesus likable, however, and when he springs in with a smiling, "Yes?" to answer someone's curse of "oh, God," or "Jesus!" it is very funny. Rebeck does manage to cover a lot of controversial and divisive topics with silly humor.
Director Joseph Hanreddy does a nice job keeping a massive cast (there are more than 30 in the ensemble) from getting out of control on Tim Golebiewski's set that impressively changes from a high school gym to the TV studio to heaven, aided by music (Michael Freyer, sound design) and projections (Greg Purnell, design).
Some "split-screen" scenes where West is interviewing a guest while a family is interacting as they watch the show don't work well, however. The timing is off and we get a sense of actors waiting to be able to insert their lines into the overlapping dialogue. Lau also appears awkward – maybe he doesn't like Beck and that's coming through? He doesn't seem comfortable in the talk show host's skin.
Overall, it's a far-reaching, well timed exploration of what separates and polarizes society and a plea for everyone to agree to disagree.
O BEAUTIFUL runs through Oct. 14; Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm; Tickets $6-$30; Box Office at the KNafe Katter Theatre, 820 Bolton Rd; 860-486-2113; www.crt.uconn.edu.