Playwright: Meredith Friedman. At: Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.theaterwit.org; $20-$30. Runs through: Nov. 29
Viewed at the final preview, this co-world premiere of The Firestorm struck me as incomplete. It feels as if it needs to be a larger play and I wonder if early drafts had more characters.
Set in Columbus, Ohio, The Firestorm concerns Patrick Henderson ( Vance Smith ), a 40-ish progressive state commissioner running for governor, and his wife, Gaby ( Kanome Jones ), an Ivy-educated attorney. He's white, and she is Black. Meeting with Patrick's overeager young campaign strategist Leslie ( Melanie Derleth ), Gaby agrees to campaign, especially among African-American voters, if she doesn't have to reshape herself too drastically. A bombshell explodes when Patrick is accused of having spray-painted a racial epithet on a dormitory door as part of a fraternity hazing ritual when he was 18 and attending a university in the South. Disgusted with what he'd done, he quit the fraternity the very next day.
Author Meredith Friedman keeps the fallout from this revelation tightly contained between Patrick and Gaby. We never witness the political firestorm suggested by the titleno reporters, no campaign staff other than Leslie, no pollsters, no political allies/enemies, no public statements from Patrick, who admits his guilt to his wife. This is one of the ways the play seems incomplete. It never has the look, the feel, the swirling immediacy of a political campaign.
Friedman also takes great pains in the first half of this 85-minute play to establish how tight-knit and loving Patrick and Gaby are, with dialogue that's almost too glib. The marriage is so solid that I do not believe the meltdown that occurs when Patrick's momentary past is revealed. I understand intellectually, but not emotionally.
Then, in the closing minutes of the play, the subject of the long-ago epithet appears. Jamal ( David Lawrence Hamilton ) never knew who painted his door, and very much has gotten on with his life in another state. The motives for his presence now are not at all clear. He doesn't ask Patrick for anything ( although Patrick gives Jamal an apology ). He does, however, appear to nudge Gaby into withdrawing from campaigning with Patrick. The play ends at this point and it, too, feels incomplete. Friedman's play isn't really a political story, but the story of an inter-racial relationship. The former requires a large number of characters, the latter only two. Friedman's shotgun wedding isn't entirely satisfying. People do want to know how things turn out, not just for Patrick and Gaby but for the campaign.
There are no major problems with the production under director Drew Martin. Positive aspects include good acting and sleek, spare scenic design of contemporary interiors by Joe Schermoly, with smoothly flexible lighting by Maya Michele Fein. You can catch some classic jazz ( Dizzy, Coltrane ) between scenes.