If one were to pick a bone with New Rep’s production of “Chesapeake”, it would be to wonder why it took so doggone long to appear on the company’s schedule. The 1999 play by Lee Blessing, best known for his 1987 work, “A Walk in the Woods” (nominated for a Tony as Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama), is a marvelous piece of theater. In the current mode of such works as “ART”, “Bakersfield Mist”, “Red”, and “Pitman Painters”, “Chesapeake” is an examination of the nature of art and the reliable judgment as to its worth (and, in the case of Blessing’s play, the consequent justification of its appropriateness for public funding). What could keep these dramas from becoming great art themselves is the fact that they share the same danger of potentially distancing an audience in that they are all more intellectually than emotionally involving. As political polemics, each must depend on the author’s gift of powerful speech and the actors’ equal gift of powerful interpretation. In the wrong hands, any of these plays could be a dull and pedantic diatribe. In the right hands, they can produce theatrical dynamite.
To criticize this play for this lack of emotional heft would be barking up the wrong tree. What sets this work apart is that it is basically a piece of performance art about a piece of performance art threatened with being defunded. The title refers to a Chesapeake Retriever, variously referred to as “Rat” or “Lucky”, owned by one Senator Therm Pooley (insert here “Strom Thurmond”, “Jesse Helms”, or your favorite conservative flavor of the month), who has attained political power largely based on his opposition to NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) funding for the artist Kerr (rhymes, not coincidentally, with “cur”). The first act sets up the conflict between the Senator and the artist, as well as the roles of the Senator’s wife, aide, and that canine. It ends with a literal cliffhanger. The second act, a lengthy shaggy dog story, becomes fantastic in both senses of the term, indescribable without this critic’s being guilty of one of theater’s all-time spoilers. Suffice it to say that the entire cast is fabulous, again in both senses of this term.
That entire cast happens to consist of one Georgia Lyman. As directed by Doug Lockwood, (who ironically performed in New Rep’s “ART” last season), she’s a one woman powerhouse. As the audience members first take their seats, she’s found sitting quietly on the sidelines, then gradually interacts with them, drawing them into her storytelling. The plot is based in part on the real-life experiences of the artists who in 1990 became known as the NEA Four, having had their funding revoked. If this sounds too heavy or pedestrian, rest assured that Blessing, Lockwood and Lyman manage to build, especially in the second act, a series of hilarious scenes. Lyman has never had such a golden plum of a role, which she gleefully inhabits. She’s aided by the extremely effective Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan (also responsible for the simple set involving a canvas floor cloth), perfectly timed Sound Design by David Reiffel, and appropriately versatile Costume Design by Adrienne Carlile.
At one point, Blessing has Kerr refer to the concept of “neoteny”, or physiological maturation that is slowed or delayed, later more specifically alluded to as childlikeness. Without sounding too, uh, dogmatic, isn’t that what good theater often brings out in all of us, as we experience the impact of role-play? And how terrific is it when we’re also motivated to ponder life’s mysteries. (For example, is there a dog?). Amidst all the (all too) familiar typical holiday fare of Dickensian urchins, rodent monarchs and ubiquitous caroling, you’d do well to unleash your inner non-seasonal theater fan and get thee to New Rep. Dog forbid you should miss this one.