Vital theater can start from the inside and flow outward, its drama rooted in human psychology. Or it can shine a light from the outside world of society and politics into humanity's recesses, revealing them square by square like headlights scouring a country road at night.
Andrea Lepcio's sharp, funny, touching play One Nation Under takes the latter course. The bendable realities of war and class clash and twist with the inflexibilities of ideology, illuminating the lives of a number of complex characters who hail from both sides of "the tracks." It's a play of ideas and characters; and while the latter do embody the former, Lepcio's script and the fine actors in this Three Chicks Theatre production make them real and conflicted people, not the stereotypes that often inhabit stories like this.
It's 2005. A politically conservative and highly principled judge (Olivia Negron) is thrown for a loop when her ne'er-do-well hacker son Eric (Jon Eisworth) enlists with Halliburton for a long tour in Iraq. Having befriended the oily presidential advisor (the very good Joel Haberli) who's vetting her for a possible Supreme Court appointment, Judge Stanton starts to call in favors and spend money to get preferential treatment for her son.
These protections are not available to Darcee Washington, the Bronx reservist (Chanté Lewis of Platanos and Collard Greens) who's been assigned to protect him. While Eric's motives for going to Iraq have to do with breaking free from his mother, Darcee has enlisted because she needs the health benefits for her asthmatic son. The collision between her hardscrabble family and the judge's Park Avenue values is explosive, and the excellent cast delivers on its potential. Negron is marvelous as the judge, and Toks Olagundoye and Chrystal Stone are quiveringly good as the judge's ambitious clerk and the soldier's proud, scrappy sister respectively. Lewis and Eisworth bond cautiously, touchingly, and amusingly, in the corner of the stage representing Fallujah.
Though events turn out somewhat predictably, the path is strewn with small surprises and powerful scenes. Pairs hit it off but ultimately can't stand one another as the rich folks' conservative views grate against the realities of inner-city working-class life. It's all told via a plot that is both mobile and moving, and frequently funny.
Stories "ripped from the headlines" can be formulaic. One Nation Under avoids this trap. Deftly directed by Tye Blue, it's a gripping, superbly paced example of theater's power to reflect our own triumphs and failures more clearly than we can usually see from merely thinking them over, or from pondering the big questions in the security of our living rooms.