It seemed appropriate that Daisy, Sean Devine’s politically charged drama rooted in the American election of 1964, opened at the Great Canadian Theatre Company on the day that the potential implications of the coronavirus really seemed to take hold here.
The company announced Friday afternoon that “we have made the difficult decision, in the interest of the health of our patrons, staff and community, to close operations until April 5. We are planning for Daisy, which opened last night, to re-open April 7 for a two week extended run, closing on April 19.
The GCTC’s box office staff will be working with patrons to re-book tickets for Daisy. For those subscribers and single ticket holders unable to attend during the revised schedule, we will offer a credit for up to 18 months for future GCTC season performances to be used by the patron or a guest of their choice.
For those who are able to see the production, Devine’s play centres on the insidious way in which political advertising can co-opt our brains in pandemic fashion, sowing blind fear and leading to inadequately informed decisions. Judging from news photos of stores elsewhere stripped bare of toilet paper, a virus like COVID-19 can do the same.
Not that Ottawa-based Devine was thinking of physical illness when he wrote Daisy, which debuted in Seattle, Wash., in 2016 (GCTC is hosting the show’s Canadian premiere).
Part of a trio of plays he’s written about the changing face of American politics in the 1960s — we saw one of those plays, the deservedly award-winning Re:Union, when it was here during the 2015 Magnetic North Theatre Festival — Daisy’s over-stuffed storyline turns on a groundbreaking televised election ad for the Democratic presidential incumbent, Lyndon Johnson.
In the ad, a sweet little girl counts and plucks the petals on a daisy while an ominous voice, meant to represent the hawkish Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, counts down to an atomic explosion.
The horrific ad played only once in 1964, Johnson won the election by a landslide, and America, despite the ad’s implied characterization of Johnson as a peacekeeper, was soon sinking ever deeper into the Vietnam War.
Devine traces the creation of that ad by a New York advertising agency.
At the centre of his story is Louise Brown (a curiously stilted Marion Day), a copywriter whose ambition collides with her ethics over this ad. She abhors the idea of working on an attack ad but hungers for the kind of career that a successful campaign could foster.
Working in a male-dominated industry, Brown clashes with Sid Myers, a Mad Men-style ad guy played with bullying ruthlessness by Brad Long, who was also in Re:Union.
Also on board are the Daisy ad producer, jittery, paranoid Aaron Ehrlich (a very funny Geoff McBride), the agency owner, Bill Bernbach (Paul Rainville, blending an avuncular appearance with a shiv-to-the-ribs reality), and the White House liaison, Clifford Lewis (Andrew Moodie), who, as a black man, is a big supporter of pro-civil rights Johnson.
Back on the GCTC stage after too long an absence is Michael Mancini. He plays Tony Schwartz, a nerdy, agoraphobic sound engineer who was the unrecognized originator of the Daisy ad. In Mancini’s hands, Schwartz is a compelling figure, his seemingly ineffectual nature belying a frightening awareness of human psychology and vulnerability which plays directly into the needs of advertising.
The setting is the mid-1960s and both Venessa Imeson’s costumes and Frank Donato’s historical video projections by support that context, but Devine’s concern is the present day.
The power of the state and the media — the latter obviously more diverse and divided now — political and cultural polarization, feminism, race relations, war, ethical relativism: Looked at through Devine’s lens, it sometimes feels as though we haven’t progressed at all.
Thing is, Devine is swept away by all this subject matter. There’s too much going on here and, sometimes, too much of the same thing. For instance, Louise Brown’s ethical conundrum initially elicits empathy but, repeatedly spotlighted, gets tiresome. Her dilemma may be true to life, but you want to shout at her, “For God’s sake, Lou, move on!”
The script also slides into both the expository — always a risk with historically-based material and political theatre — and the overly obvious. We know about the quagmire that Vietnam became, for example, but it’s a bit of an eye roller when Sid proclaims, “You can’t compare Cuba and Vietnam. Cuba was a disaster.”
Directed by Eric Coates, Daisy moves at a fair clip and varied tempo. But, a bit like news coverage of the coronavirus, the show leaves you feeling trampled by too much information.
Daisy is a GCTC and Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre co-production. The show was reviewed Thursday. For information please see gctc.ca