The Great Society

Famous Door Theatre Company

at Theatre Building Chicago

The Great Society, Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe’s sequel to Early and Often, is a play about striving set during the first year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The title refers not to LBJ’s welfare programs, however, but to the social world above and beyond the insular Irish community depicted.

Jeannie Flannery, wife of a Chicago ward committeeman, seeks to claim her rightful place in the Kennedy clan–she may be a cousin of Joan, whom her husband derides as married to “the Zeppo of the Kennedys.” Young Father Mike eagerly awaits the opportunity to take over the parish from his dying superior, and Jeannie’s sister-in-law, Anne Marie, aims at financial security through a scheme involving carnival rides with a space-program theme. Those who don’t seek greatness have greatness thrust upon them: hapless precinct captain Dennis, Anne Marie’s husband, faces being reshaped as a captain of carnival industry by his wife, while John Flannery endures Jeannie’s efforts to secure him a classy job in Washington. Only Ed Talley, who sets the action in motion by threatening to out John Flannery as someone who hears voices from religious statues, tries to keep things as they are. He’s just hoping to hang on to the chair concession at the parish Christmas festival and isn’t above using blackmail to do so.

The characters are appealing, though their banter and behavior reflect the half-real world of the sitcoms for which Wallace and Wolfe have written rather than any actual environment undergoing stressful change. But there’s no real plot engine, so the experience feels less like watching Neil Simon than gazing at Norman Rockwell, pleasant but static.

Like many another successful play, this one relies on laughs to provide momentum when the plot fails to do so–and on local color to provide the laughs. An ongoing battle between “Back of the Yards trash” Father Mike and his north-side parishioners over the relative merits of the Sox and the Cubs dependably provokes hilarity, as do references to Dennis’s “job” at Welles Park and the vagaries of local government (“I work in Cook County politics,” John says, “so I reject a fair percentage of Satan’s works”). Wallace and Wolfe also take a page from the book of Late Nite Catechism and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? and include amusing if predictable jokes about midcentury American Catholicism, including that staple, the ferocious nun (“I can see why she would want to be a bride of Christ, but why He said yes I’ll never know”). This is well-plowed ground, but the playwrights manage a harvest sufficient to satisfy those whose experience the script reflects.

The Great Society will probably never receive a stronger production than it gets from Famous Door. Under Wallace’s sharp direction, the actors wring every possible laugh from the script and then some. Jen Engstrom stands out as Kennedy wannabe Jeannie: though Engstrom perfectly and pitilessly displays the character’s self-regard, she makes her touching as well as foolish. (Engstrom gets a big assist from costume designer Janice Pytel, who has a great eye for period detail: Jeannie wears a mourning dress and veil that might have been boosted from Jackie Kennedy’s closet.) Will Casey brings a sort of weary tolerance to John Flannery, the character he played in Early and Often: though annoyed by the changes he sees around him–his wife’s social-climbing pretensions, the new priest’s failure to respect his power–he’s not a reactionary but someone genuinely trying to understand what he’s supposed to do next. Casey is so tall he has to duck when he comes in the door, but he moves his considerable frame with an outward and visible poise that seems to reflect an inward and spiritual grace.

Kate Martin shows us how the scheming, envious Anne Marie has been thwarted, making her a character instead of a caricature yet never losing the role’s comic edge. In Daniel Rivkin’s hands, Dennis is the archetypal schleppy brother-in-law, a classic sidekick in the tradition of Barney Fife: Rivkin turns befuddlement into high art as Dennis encounters in quick succession his wife’s ambition, his sister’s delusions of grandeur, his brother-in-law’s spiritual awakening, and his priest’s apostasy about the Cubs. Michael Bertrando’s Father Mike (whose shaggy hair and long sideburns perfectly evoke the hip young priest of the 60s) is more appealing struggling with a crush on Jeannie than he is screaming at the drunken organist or brawling in defense of Minnie Minoso. But he does provide the necessary worldliness to balance Flannery’s unsought spirituality: when the ward boss confesses he’s been getting advice from the Virgin, Bertrando’s tone says it all as he roars, “What virgin?” And John Gawlik handles the malapropisms of Talley, the soon-to-be-dethroned chair king, with aplomb.

The play conveys nothing about politics and not much about social evolution. The playwrights’ sole attempt to be “relevant”–a reference to Jeannie reading The Feminine Mystique–falls flat because it’s so out of character. Coming in the final scene, it seems less about the world of the play than about the playwrights: having noticed that they’d written something with active women and passive men, they belatedly tried to account for it.

Set at Thanksgiving, The Great Society is a nice piece of theater pie. You’ll enjoy it, but it’s not as nourishing as a real meal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.