The 2012-13 season has begun (!) and our first foray was to The Belfry for opening night of Hamilton County Theater Guild’s production of State of the Union, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. The three act play is directed by Carla Crandall, assisted by Ginny Burt and Jim Williams, on a set designed by Barney Boyd. Costumes were by Marilyn Dearmin, Norma Floyd, Jeannette Wiles and Jan Carney.

The play opened in 1945 for a successful Pulitzer Prize winning run and then was made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury and Adolphe Menjou.

State of the Union follows the behind the scenes politics that go on as a presidential hopeful positions himself for recognition within the party. Grant Matthews, an outspoken idealistic industrialist, is well thought of by party mover and shaker Jim Conver and newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke as a possible candidate for the 1948 presidential race, that is until Matthews’ idealism clashes with the needs of the Conver-Thorndyke political machine. Complicating matters is Matthews’ waning relationship with his wife, Mary – a woman he needs to have by his side to give the appearance of being a steady family man, while in fact he is having an affair with Ms. Thorndyke.

The message of the play is a timely one. It shows the sad folly of American politics’ selfish practice of disregarding the country’s needs and replacing them with the party’s needs.

At The Belfry, director Crandall leads a large cast (19) through this well timed production with some mixed results. This is a hard play to do – lengthy (3 acts, from 8 pm to 10:40pm), wordy, dated (in both references and style) and chock full of political ideas. The storyline is solidly told, but many of the relationships tend to be complicated and unclear – which is more the fault of the script than of the company’s approach.

First and foremost, the acting is wonderful. Under Ms. Crandall’s hand, every role, whether large or tiny, is portrayed with maximum energy and thorough development. Standouts in some minor roles include Kevin Shadle who, as lively southerner Judge Jefferson Davis Alexander, gives his all in a wonderfully quirky character role; Pam Young – who has a great deal of fun portraying the Judge’s wife Lulubelle; Anne Auwaerter, as Mrs. Draper, fills her role with strength and class; and Brian McCarley as business bigwig Sam Parish, playing his strong character with the kind of energy and pace I wish had been more present throughout. Also, Horace Tucker has just the right feel and tendencies for his Senator Lauderback while Tonya Fenimore plays Kay Thorndyke with much confidence and poise.

The major roles are led by Gavin Rulon as the hopeful Grant Matthews. Rulon is great-looking and believable as the charismatic presidential hopeful. He takes hold of a difficult role right from the get-go and shows a man at once sure of his message and doubtful of his standing in the process. Duane Leatherman plays party boss Jim Conver with strength and intensity. A veteran actor, his experience shows as he steers Conver through a prevailing mendacity and a conniving political know-how. Eric Barker shines as wry newspaperman, Spike McManus. He cashes in on having most of the great comic lines in the show. His just-right delivery and demeanor are most impressive and I look forward to seeing more of his talents in the future.

Barbara Weaver absolutely sparkles as Mary Matthews, a complicated role in terms of the character’s various emotional stages and her many strengths and weaknesses. Looking very unfamiliar in a dark wig, Ms. Weaver clinches our attention throughout with her thorough understanding of Mrs. Matthews’ story arc and the hope, jealousy, fear, romanticizing and disdain she must deal with. Here is an actress I first met in one of my acting classes, whom I have enjoyed watching grow from smaller parts to the occasion larger role to being solid in any role and now: this portrayal, I think, announces her as the fully capable leading lady. Take note, fellow directors: Barbara Weaver is an actress you can count on.

The set design by the aforementioned Mr. Boyd was first rate with 3 walls, two of which converted fully as the scene changed from hotel room to suite of rooms to living room. Likewise the costume selections, especially for the third act’s dinner party, were authentic and, in the case of the ladies’ dresses, were quite lovely. Ms. Weaver’s clothing was especially impressive and genuine looking.

In my opinion, all that the play lacked was a snappier Hepburn/Tracy style of delivery. I believe that this is written into the play structure and that this was indeed a type of delivery that was very popular at the time. Many of you know what a stickler I am for pacing and tempo, so often overlooked by local directors and casts. The acting often needed a pushed pace in many ensemble scenes in order for the lines to “ring true” to the era’s style. Also with the many political ideas that the play sends forth, there were dry spells in the action which may have called for a little tempo boost to help get the audience through them.

One final note for improvement (and this is another one of my stickler points) – a little appropriate music during blackout scene changes goes a long way for the audience. Leaving us sitting in the dark with zero stimulus is a mistake that is easily corrected.

State of the Union is well worth your drive up north and continues at The Belfry Fri-Sun until October 14. Call 317-773-1085 for reservations or visit www.thebelfrytheatre.com to purchase tickets online.

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