Opening Nights: Hardball

The birth of the conservative blow-up doll.

You know the type—long legs, short skirts, flowing blonde mane, and a tongue that won't stop clucking. But how did Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Fox News' Megyn Kelly become the conservative blow-up dolls they are today? That's only the most obvious topic under Minneapolis playwright Victoria Stewart's microscope in Hardball (no relation to Chris Matthews' MSNBC show). In this story of one Coulteresque heroine's ascent from faceless news reporter to neocon pinup, playwright Stewart takes aim at several big ideas. Some—like what will happen to objective news coverage when money and TV ratings flow to partisan outlets—have yet to find resolution in real life, let alone onstage, making this world-premiere play all the more topical. Washington Post reporter Virginia Eames (Jaime Roberts) lands on a national TV talk show to discuss her firing for sporting a Bush '04 button in the newsroom. Right-wing mouthpiece Jim (Roy Stanton) destroys her on camera, but he knows raw talent when he sees it. Slowly, Virginia grows in confidence and audacity as her loyalties switch from her old newspaper boss, Daniel, to her newfound mentor. When Virginia lands the interview of her career—with the widow of a journalist slain on video by zealots—her migration to the Dark Side is complete. In this production by Live Girls! Theater, director Meghan Arnette gives Hardball the kind of TV verisimilitude it demands. Numerous video monitors onstage help set the media-saturated mood, and Arnette's canny cast does the rest. Roberts is mesmerizing as the woman you'll love to hate; Stanton channels James Carville's persona (if not his politics), and Shawn Belyea gives a wrenching performance as the Post editor watching his integrity, industry, and paramour all slip away. And, in a very few minutes onstage, Alyssa Keene plays the grieving widow (obviously based on Mariane Pearl) with a ferocious poise. Hardball is a scrappy, untidy piece of theater that often resembles an Oliver Stone flick in its transparent bias. But just as frequently, Stewart's darkly comic fable wrestles with all the right issues. On the surface, it's the story of a woman taking her fate in her own hands and seizing every opportunity. But it's also a grim tale of how deeply truth-telling has been wounded by the rise of the pundit class. Does Virginia genuinely believe what she's saying? Does she care more about fame and fortune than the facts? Is she merely a tool of a Roger Ailes–style Svengali? And what does it mean when anyone with a video camera and a telegenic presence can suddenly hijack the news? Such are the questions that keep traditional journalists twitching in their beds at night. Stewart doesn't supply any easy answers in Hardball. Rather, she suggests that news has become a business of manufacturing, not reporting. And yet, whether on Fox or The Huffington Post, we can't turn away.

 
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