Seven women of different ages, races, and ethnicity, all in some state of dishevelment, stand in a line onstage. Part of a large American flag is visible hanging behind them.
Seven sisters: the ensemble of POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive at Steppenwolf Credit: Michael Brosilow

There’s a memorable moment in an episode of Mad Men between office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and copywriter Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). The former, fed up with the constant stream of sexual harassment from clients and coworkers alike, snaps during an elevator ride and tells Peggy, “I want to burn this place down.”

How long does it take for women to realize that they’re wasting their time and talents—and possibly losing their souls—in service of mediocre men who don’t give a shit about them? That’s the essential question at the heart of Selina Fillinger’s sardonic and pitiless 2022 political satire, POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, now staged by Steppenwolf co-artistic director Audrey Francis in its local premiere. The world of the play has a lot more in common with the HBO series Veep than Madison Avenue in the 1960s. But the frustrations of women in impossible professional situations in which they spend equal time fighting and comforting each other has a definite Joan-and-Peggy vibe. 

POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive
Through 12/17: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Wed 11/22 2 PM; no shows Wed 11/22 7:30 PM, Thu 11/23, or Tue 11/28; open captions Sat 11/25 3 PM, audio description and touch tour Sun 11/19 3 PM (touch tour 1:30 PM); ASL interpretation Fri 11/24; Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650,, $20-$114

Toss in that now-famous speech of America Ferrera’s character in Barbie (“It is literally impossible to be a woman”) for good measure, if you want to get a sense of where the boiling point with patriarchy ends up going in this play. But—spoiler alert—just don’t expect POTUS to end with anything resembling obvious optimism for the future. 

The seven women of the subtitle include the First Lady, Margaret (Karen Aldridge); the chief of staff, Harriet (Sandra Marquez); press secretary Jean (Karen Rodriguez); nervous junior aide Stephanie (Caroline Neff); and presidential mistress (and baby mama in waiting), Dusty (Chloe Baldwin). 

You’d think the arrival of the latter, with her news about her impending bundle of joy, would be the most fraught element of the storyline. You’d be wrong, because there’s also Bernadette (Meighan Gerachis), the president’s drug-dealing sister who is seeking a pardon, and possibly to reignite her love affair with Jean. (Gerachis has seemingly staked out the local onstage franchise for playing messy women who never met a bad situation they couldn’t make worse; her Bernadette feels like a close relative to the hard-drinking aunt in combat gear Gerachis played earlier this year in Tuckie White’s Motherhouse at Rivendell.)

Meantime, the peace and arms talks the president is hosting are breaking down because Bahrain’s ambassador objects to the president saying, in a meeting where his wife arrives late, that they’ll need to excuse her, because “she’s having a cunty morning.” That obviously won’t help with what Harriet calls “the shit with Israel” (a line which of course hits pretty hard right now, but also feels like an evergreen punchline for intractable international problems). It also won’t make the president popular with the group of feminist leaders he’s supposed to be addressing later that evening.

Witnessing all of this is journalist Chris (Celeste M. Cooper), who is having her own battles with the patriarchy in the form of an editor who doesn’t think a nursing mom estranged from her husband will have the attention span and stamina needed to cover high-stakes political stories. When Chris’s frustrations boil over into physical violence, things veer into Weekend at Bernie’s territory.

Fillinger’s play pointedly doesn’t tell us which party is in power, and I think that’s smart. It’s not as if women in politics get a lot more respect when Dems are in power. Though it’s not her boss’s fault, Vice President Kamala Harris has been subjected to a raft of baseless criticism about her “invisibility.” Even though she’s quite clearly been front and center on a number of issues. Even though the press corps making those claims didn’t have squat to say about her most recent male predecessor, who will be remembered primarily for endorsing the guy whose supporters wanted to hang him on January 6, and for providing a landing platform for a fly during a nationally televised debate. 

It’s an oft-observed phenomenon that women in politics are admired when they’re supporting a man, but are put under a microscope and torn apart if they dare to challenge a man for higher office. “I’d vote for a woman—just not that woman” seems to provide an ever-shifting set of goalposts for people who have voted for many mediocre and problematic men over the years. 

And the women in POTUS are keenly aware of this paradox, even if they don’t have the will to directly challenge it, until extreme circumstances arise. 

At times, the ever-growing absurdity of Fillinger’s story threatens to undermine that awareness. Just hitting all their physical and vocal marks to make the complex jokes and situations land is a challenging proposition for the characters and the actors playing them, without also making the shifts into moments for internal reflection. Occasionally the latter feels swallowed up on Regina García’s spare but elegant set. (Kudos to fight choreographer Almanya Narula and intimacy choreographer Maya Vinice Prentiss for their adroit work, though.) 

That set has the requisite three doors—the better to enact door-slamming farce with—but they’re the big heavy kind associated with the White House, which feels like it slows things down a quarter-step every so often. A scene where Rodriguez and Marquez perambulate in a circle on a rotating disc on the stage cunningly mocks the Aaron Sorkin West Wing walk-and-talk, while also capturing the sense the women have of being stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque world. 

But ultimately, this production delivers on the backs of its incredible ensemble, which is a Murderers’ Row of local thespians. Aldridge’s Margaret is a delightful mix of seething resentment about her public image (she wears Crocs to seem more “earthy”) and sage advice for the other women. (At one point, when Cooper’s Chris is surprised to find out that FLOTUS collects hunting rifles, she tells the journalist, “Nothing helps you cast off your day like hunting your prey.”) Baldwin turns what could be a standard-issue ditz role into a smart sexy riff, like a screwball ingenue. Neff, who spends most of the play half-naked in a drug-induced haze, clutching an inner tube (you have to see it—I can’t explain it), somehow manages to keep a shred of Stephanie’s dignity intact.

And Marquez, who has been the secret weapon for so many productions over the years at so many Chicago theaters, fittingly gets the spotlight here as Harriet, the woman who has held it together for everyone else and is finally asking herself, “Why not ME?” As the name of a women’s political organization puts it: She should run. The question, of course, is whether a country that is still deeply misogynist will recognize her gifts if she steps away from her supporting role.