Next week, Kristen Bush's family is coming to see The City of Conversation.Their profile doesn't match that of the play exactly, but there are enough similarities to Anthony Giardina's story to make the relatives a logical topic when Bush and I spoke the other day in her dressing room. "I grew up in Sterling, Kansas - population 2,000," Bush said. "My parents are Republicans and my father, Scott Bush, was the county attorney." In the drama, the actress plays Anna Fitzgerald, a Republican from the Midwest.
"I have an aunt and uncle who live in Georgetown," Bush continued, mentioning the Washington, D.C. neighborhood where Giardina's drama takes place. "Their son - my cousin - is a Democrat and a state delegate in Maryland." Given these politically contrasting dynamics, does Bush expect sparks next week after her family sees the show? The actress, who has done plenty of fine work off-Broadway and on television, replied: "All I know is that I'm looking forward to it."
Bush, who studied theater at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, and acting at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, in London, where she was the only American in a class of 20, said that her upbeat attitude comes in part from appearing in such an audience-engaging play. "People like it because it makes them feel smarter, because it's a walk down memory lane, and because it's hopeful," she explained. She is reminded nightly, however, that a New York audience does not tend to favor her character, an ambitious young Reaganite.
"When I feel an audience turning against Anna, I sometimes remind myself that if this play were being performed in Kansas City or Oklahoma City, in Lincoln or Phoenix, that I probably wouldn't get booed." She added, "They would understand that, in 1979, when the play begins, Anna and her husband were revolutionaries of a kind. They were at the forefront of something. They wanted to believe in someone, and that someone was Reagan."
Bush acknowledged that all audiences, whatever their location, would probably have at least some sympathy for Anna's mother-in-law, the liberal Hester Ferris, portrayed by Jan Maxwell. "That makes sense, because the story is seen through Hester's prism," Bush said. "You see Anna primarily through her eyes."
In the first act, the battle lines between the women are drawn: "Anna believes she's right just as Hester believes she's right," Bush explained. In the second act, Anna becomes more nuanced. "I see her then as a working mother who's exhausted. I would hope that most people, whether or not they are working parents and whatever their politics, could sympathize with that."
Bush also hopes that Anna's critique of Hester's Georgetown insularity earns an audience's sympathy or, at least, its respect. "I like Anna's speech in which she attacks Hester's limited understanding of people who don't agree with her. She says that Hester is willing to 'plow a whole group of people under because they don't fit into your chic, stylish world.'" Bush added: "I've had similar thoughts when I tell people I grew up in Kansas and they scoff a little. I'm like Anna in that respect."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com