Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
I keep logging in to various news sites to find the latest on the ongoing impeachment trial (even though I, like everyone else, know what the end result will be). The thing is: the train wreck that is the Trump administration is fascinating to watch, as is the willingness of the GOP to compromise every principle they ever had. But none of this would be happening if it were not for the strength of one woman, which is why I was very interested in seeing Adult in the Room, the one-woman play about Nancy Pelosi by Bill McMahon. I’m not sure what I expected, though. I went into it with a bit of trepidation: would the whole thing be about her battles with Trump? Or would we actually get to learn a bit about the woman who has been tasked with trying her best to maintain some semblance of actual democracy amid our national insanity?
My concern was alleviated in the first few minutes when I understood McMahon’s central conceit: this is Pelosi (played by Orlagh Cassidy) participating in an Instagram Live session for young female activists in which they would ask her questions about her life and career. Trump, though omnipresent (through phone calls and texts that reveal his latest irrational tweets), doesn’t even seem to be the most significant challenge the protagonist faces here: that would be tamping down the urgent activism within her party present in the persona of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the young congresswomen known as “the Squad” who are the loudest voices in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. As much as Cassidy’s Pelosi appreciates their zeal, she knows that she needs to keep them in line in order to proceed in a way that will be best for the party and the nation.
Directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley, McMahon’s play gives us a good look at the Catholic, liberal, and very political upbringing that made the Speaker who she is today. Amy Beyersdorfer’s streamlined office set allows Cassidy to move around a bit in order to vary the stage picture, and two large interactive monitors (one of each side) allows us to see the questions she is responding to. As a device, this works fairly well to provide impetus for the autobiographical monologue that, like most such plays, this one consists of.
Cassidy, a Broadway veteran, does a fine job of portraying the Speaker, getting her speech patterns and gestures down perfectly, and it doesn’t take long to get over the fact that this Nancy Pelosi is far younger than the real one. To help her seem more approachable and human, McMahon peppers the script with nostalgic reminiscences stemming from old photographs and, every once in a while, has her relieve stress by gorging on chocolates from a box on her desk. (She loves chocolate! She binge-eats! She’s just like us!) Mostly, though, we see how she came to be Speaker of the House, how seriously she takes the job, and how profoundly difficult it is to remain, as the title has it, the adult in the room.
This is a play in which the present moment is very nearly the one we are actually experiencing: the impeachment trial. (Actually, it is the eve of the moment in November when she opened the proceedings.) This immediacy underscores the urgent issues that lie behind the woman on stage: though the House’s role in the trial is at an end, this is not and never has been a matter that should be trivialized. McMahon’s play provides access to the major player in all of this who is not named Trump and whose life, after all, is not anywhere near as well known. His fans would hate this show, but they will never bring themselves anywhere near it. For the left, though, there is something invigorating about getting to know Pelosi in this way. She’s a fascinating woman—of course! she is the first female Speaker!—whose down to earth personality is a welcome relief from the overblown rhetoric we usually see from DC, and Cassidy makes you understand her as much more than the political role that she plays.
Adult in the Room is now playing at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, until Feb 15. The show runs approximately 75 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.