As most Americans were, Sean Devine was changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“The world shifted toward a militaristic way,” the playwright says now, “and I became curious about that. I started researching the Bush administration and the people who worked for him.”
The difference in Devine’s story is that he is Canadian. Nonetheless, he dove deep into the arena of American politics and in 2003 emerged with the ideas for three different plays, one of which will premiere July 8 at ACT Theatre.
The play, Daisy, is a semi-fictional account of the most infamous political ad ever devised. The year was 1964, and the ad team charged with assuring Lyndon B. Johnson’s re-election as president produced one that positioned his opponent, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, as a careless warmonger capable of unleashing the horrors of nuclear war on the world.
The irony, says Devine, is that the ad people believed they were assuring a victory for the peace president, not for the man who would further mire the country in the Vietnam War. “I’ve always been drawn to stories where idealists have their ideals crushed, or powerful institutions manipulate and use the tools of their power,” Devine says. “That’s how I got intrigued into it.”
The ad—which depicts a young girl and a mushroom cloud—aired only once, but its shock waves have been felt in presidential politics ever since. In particular, this election year—which, like 1964, features a blowhard populist Republican taking on a seasoned Democratic hawk—has produced numerous media references to the ad. The timing could not have been more perfect for the production, which is being directed by ACT artistic director John Langs. That was not by design. “We started working on the play six years ago,” says Langs. “Long before the spine-tingling relevancy that it will have when we set it off.”
This production is Langs’s second collaboration with Devine, following a Vancouver staging of Re:Union, another of the plays that grew out of Devine’s post-9/11 research. It is also the second politically themed work to appear in Langs’ first season as artistic director, following a powerful, and equally resonant, spring production of Assassins. Just as Sondheim’s musical brought life to the characters who shaped history from the shadows, Daisy is set at a slight remove from the seat of power, finding its drama in the lives of the lesser-known actors who served the president.
“What I love about Sean’s writing [is that] he understands the human story is the most important thing,” Langs says. “He never hectors or lectures an audience. Even though his work is political, he finds the unique, interesting human story.” ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., 292-7676, acttheatre.org. Runs July 8–Aug. 7.