Defining an ‘American Daughter’

A woman crumbles a cranberry muffin into the Potomac, thinking I want God to know me. Judith Kaufman is an oncologist, a black Jewish woman celebrating Tashlich, the festival of regrets.

Across the city, her oldest friend has just been tapped to become the first woman Surgeon General.

Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes has a chance to take hold of power and change lives across the country. And what her family, her friends and the country will do when this chance hangs in the balance may change her life.

Women in politics and public life will take center stage in Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” on the Main Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival through Aug. 21.

Broadway, Off-Broadway and television veteran Diane Davis appears as Lyssa, the daughter of a conservative senator descended from Ulysses S. Grant, who has devoted herself to public health, to opening clinics, changing policy and funding medical research.

“She wants to make the world a better place,” Davis said, “and to fight for the causes she’s been working on since she was a teenager. She came of age as a doctor in the ’70s and ’80s — they used to do studies only on men. She has spent most of her life on health issues, and she’s genuine.”

Talking with her husband, Walter, a professor feeling his career fade, Lyssa makes that passion and commitment plain.

“She says you know what I want — this is the conversation we’ve been having since the first day we met,” Davis said.

Their conversation reminds her of a line in one of Hilary Clinton’s recent speeches, when she says to Bill “the conversation we started in the library 40 years ago is still going on.”

Lyssa thinks she should be given the job because she can do it well, because she is brilliant, sincere and hardworking, and because the work matters, said director Evan Cabnet.

And though she knows how to play politics, as a senator’s daughter, she has never before tried to take on this kind of public role.

“It’s one of the greatest gifts of playing her — she doesn’t try to be liked,” Davis said. “She doesn’t have time for it. That’s part of what comes off as abrasive to the general public. She wants to work hard and do her job. She doesn’t want to be a friendly lady who makes you smile; that’s not her role. It’s audacious — it’s hard to find as an actor. It’s rare to play a woman who doesn’t use sexuality to get what she wants or coddle people or make people feel good.”

Wasserstein is a Tony and Pulitzer prizewinning playwright known for intelligent and successful women in a country that expects them to smile and step aside for men. Lyssa will not, and in this brief time before her nomination is confirmed, events lead to a public outcry against her.

“Wendy was thinking about how we treat women in a position of power,” Cabnet said. “We hold women to a high and sometimes impossible standard. She chose an incredibly benign mistake to snowball out of control.”

The media storm will involve the people around Lyssa — her father the senator, a student her husband has mentored to become a public commentator, an old friend of his and Walter himself. It will test her courage and her bonds with the people closest to her.

“Lyssa and Walter are in a rough spot,” Davis said, “midway through their lives, wrestling with how they thought life and success would be, how they thought a marriage of the minds would be.”

They are navigating a longterm relationship, Cabnet said, when she is creative and fulfilled, and he is questioning all he has accomplished.

The pressure will bear down on them both and on Judith, Lyssa’s best friend since high school. Lyssa and Judith have survived medical residencies together, built careers together and faced life-and-death choices together.

“They’re like war buddies,” Davis said. “They have fought their battles together. Judith is one of the only people who really knows her, who knows what she’s been through. And when Judith talks about a patient dying of cancer, Lyssa is one of the only people on the planet who knows what that’s like.”

“I think it is important to both of them. In some ways it’s the marriage.”

In ways Walter does not know Lyssa, she said, Judith does.

But they too will face the limits of what they have made and what they can do, and of

their friendship and Lyssa’s courage, tolerance and endurance.

In many ways, Wasserstein asks what it means to be an American daughter — or an American woman.

“There are questions of identity wrapped up in the title,” Cabnet said, “who we are to the people in our family, to our country, our community and ourselves.”

“There’s a question of what it means to be an American,” Davis said. “We have the daughter of a Greek immigrant, an African-American Jewish women, a gay right-winger — and people at the center who lay claim to an American identity because of their ancestry — people who lay claim to what ‘American’ means.”

Considering what it means to Lyssa, she drew a line from a conversation between Lyssa and her father.

“The task is to rise and continue,” she said.

 

This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle — my thanks to A&E editor Jeff Borak. In the photo at the top, Diane Davis and Saidah Arrika Ekulona appear as close friends Lyssa and Judith in ‘An American Daughter’ by Wendy Wasserstein,Photo by  T Charles Erickson, courtesy of Williamstown Theatre Festival

 

On Stage …

What: Wendy Wasserstein’s ‘An American Daughter

Where: Main Stage, ’62 Center, 1000 Main St., Williamstown

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 3:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 7:30 p.m. Thursday through. Aug 21

Tickets: $40 to $68

Information: wtfestival.org

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