An American Daughter at Little Theatre of Virginia Beach

A scene from LTVB's An American Daughter. Three actors sit on the couch center stage, speaking with an actor in a chair to their right. Other actors are dispersed around the space, one with a boom microphone, indicating that this scene is being filmed.

Words by Christopher Bernhardt.
Photos courtesy of Little Theatre Virginia Beach.

The Little Theatre of Virginia Beach presents this political drama that looks at the double standards facing women in politics that ran rampant in the 90s and are still so very prevalent today. 

In Wendy Wasserstein’s play, Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes is pending the confirmation for her nomination by the President of the United States to be the U.S. Surgeon General. As the action unfolds, we begin to see how things that happen in the life of a professional woman with a career and children are viewed and treated differently than that of a man, if he had been in the same position.

The production presented by LTVB is a valiant attempt at tackling such a difficult piece of theatre. Line flubs and under-developed characters took away from the drama of the show but the performances of two amazing actresses; Catherine Gendell and Isis Marne’, make this production a “Must See”.

In the role of Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, Catherine Gendell is phenomenal and drives the action of the play from start to finish. Throughout the production, we watch as Gendell creates a woman who starts off as confident and determined; and evolves into a stunning and strong fighter who does not buckle against her emotions, the political patriarchy of the country or the needs that are required by a woman who loves her family and gives 100% of herself in everything that she does. Watching Gendell in this role felt like watching a master class from the most experienced and expert performer. She performs with such raw and powerful emotion that you can only root for her to rise above the hurdles that are placed in front of her and celebrate her as she finds her way out of the political turmoil created by her career, the media and her family.

A scene from LTVB's An American Daughter. Two actors chase each other around the stage with a pillow.

As Dr. Judith B. Kaufman, Isis Marne’ is a fantastic supporting stage partner for Ms. Gendell, and as they say, she makes her partner look good while still managing to have her shining moments in the spotlight. As an “African American Jewish feminist” doctor, Ms. Marne’ brings some honest and raw emotional moments that make you feel the struggles that she is going through within her own life while still trying to be there for her best friend. These two women provide some of the strongest and most outstanding performances that I have ever seen at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach.

The reminder of the cast is adequate in their roles; however, as an audience member, it felt like several of the cast members waited until only a week or two before production to learn their lines or even start developing their characters. Luckily, Ms. Gendell and Ms. Marne’ are able to rise above this and take this production to the next level.

Under the direction of Kathy Strouse, the show has some fine moments but it felt like some of the scene changes took too long and the audience was left sitting in the “dark” while watching the forms of the set crew make minor changes that should not have taken as long as they did. Some of the longer scene changes could have honestly been done under that regular lighting since it was mainly the camera crew and equipment coming to interview Dr. Hughes about her pending confirmation. The action of the play could have moved along without the blacks out or the long scene changes and helped build the intensity of the situation at hand. Ms. Strouse adeptly helped her actors create their characters; however, there are several who could have used a little more attention that would have only elevated this production even further. 

One big faux pas, was a combination of the set design by Bob Sauls and the direction of Ms. Strouse, there is a moment in the production where a character goes and looks at the books on the wall and even makes an attempt to touch one of the books; however, the books are not real and are painted onto the piece of the wall. This brings unneeded attention to a piece of the set that, if it remained untouched, could have been a nice enhancement. 

The most effective technical element of the show were the costumes designed by Tiffany Shortridge. They were appropriate for the time period and the setting of the show. Ms. Shortridge captured the last nineties very effectively and made me feel nostalgic for a time in my past. 

A scene from LTVB's An American Daughter. Two actors are sitting on stools talking like in an interview.

With all of these elements combined, this is a very interesting, thought provoking and empowering show that will leave you asking when things will change. When will women and men truly be treated as equals and receive the same treatment and scrutiny when applying for jobs, careers, or even confirmation or a political position? Even now, over 20 years after this show is set, women are still fighting for their rights to be treated fairly and equally and Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s choice to present this show was a wise one to show where we were, how far we have come and how much farther there is still to go. 

Thanks to the performances of Ms. Gendell and Ms. Marne’ and the words and story of Wendy Wasserstein, An American Daughter is a show that is not to be missed and will hopefully leave you wanting more. 

At the time of publishing, Little Theatre of Virginia Beach has announced that the show will play its remaining dates from May 22nd – June 7th. Tickets are available here.

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