Too often, the theater scene in SoFla feels like a mid-'90s Spielberg flick. Tons of chops and potential ruined by the mistaken assumption that theater audiences are stone dumb. That's not the case this month.
This month finds the brilliant, funny/depressing Benefactors still running at Palm Beach Dramaworks while the brilliant, funny/scary Body of Water rolls along at Mosaic. Moody Beirut just finished at Sol Theatre Project, and now Florida Stage — which was Palm Beach County's songiest, danciest, and cheesiest company of 2007 — has opened the southeastern premiere of Ordinary Nation.
Nation is both deep and fun: a look at the intersection of the political and personal that respects its subjects while noting how absurd both politics and people can be. Nation follows Nation Jones (Joe Kimble) as he flails through a life beset by a crazy bookie dad (Dan Leonard), a 15-year-old daughter with a gambling problem (Emily Zimmer), a cheating wife (Annie Fitzpatrick), and her paramour, Gibb Aston (Peter Thomasson). The infidelity's bad enough, but what really stings is that Aston is a conservative mayor and senatorial candidate, and Nation Jones is a lefty academic and activist. Also: He, his dad, and his daughter are broke.
Add some skeezy insider trading and you've got a production that by all rights should sink under its own weighty meaningfulness. Nation doesn't, and Florida Stage's madcap interpretation deserves as much credit as Carter W. Lewis' funny, soulful script. It's not a flashy thing, but Nation is a production so competent that it's almost transcendent. Every detail, examined from every angle, glows with intention and smarts, from Richard Crowell's ever-morphing revolving stage to the way little Frankie Nation's iPod drowns out the voices of her elders. Punters may momentarily cringe at Zimmer's cartoonishly girly character voice, but you'll get over it — it really is cartoonish, and probably intentionally so. A tiny, rollerblading 15-year-old card shark is a character right out of an anime.
The other actors need no getting used to. Leonard is playing a character who might be old enough to be his own father, but he's perfect — it takes no time to accept the rhythms of his cranky old-man banter or his creaky old-man voice or the indulgent, grandfatherly tone he takes in his playful sparring with his onstage granddaughter. Thomasson seems to be channeling John McCain, and he's so good at it that I actually like McCain more after seeing Ordinary Nation, even though Thomasson is the show's putative villain. Fitzpatrick holds onto a tough dignity through every embarrassing moment of her affair — her voice has some of Kat Hepburn's huskiness, and her shoulders never lose their square, even when you think she's about to keel over from the shame of it all. And Kimble is so breakable — he's a guy who's had everything sane in his universe upended, and his fumbling attempts to digest his new situation are writ large across his every gesture and word.
As befits a story about academics and politicians, Nation's dialogue is brainy. But it's full of heart too — Florida Stage's actors are enlivened by the big rhythms and ideas of Lewis' script, and they stack many layers of flesh across the top of even Lewis' most abstruse formulations. There are moments in Nation when you can read the entire national plight into an actor's face, like when Nation Jones meets his wife at a café after lecturing his students on the failure of capitalism. Nation looked convinced enough in the classroom, but it's a conviction that falls apart the moment he's face to face with the real-life version of the thing he was railing against. With a flesh-and-blood turncoat — one that he loves — sitting across from him, explaining why she's done what she's done, he's reduced to hopeless befuddlement. Nation, a true-believer lefty full of facts and theory, is forced to wonder if his whole conception of conservative evil was a straw man from the get-go, and we lefties in the audience are forced to wonder with him. The lovely thing is, Nation spreads around enough humanity that you figure any GOPers in the audience will feel much the same way.
Left, right, and center, the inhabitants of Ordinary Nation are impacted unfairly by their politics and economic standings because they are dogged by those definitions even as those definitions fail to define them. The simple truth that everybody understands but that nobody seems capable of acting on is this: There are people underneath our politics, and they are all equally confused. This is ordinary in any nation, but it's a long way from simple.