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Theater: Timely ‘Atwater’ shows parallels between political eras

Seth Johnston as Lee Atwater
Seth Johnston as Lee Atwater

There’s no fun in having a character the audience is not supposed to like if it’s not written/performed to be utterly likable; sympathetic, even.

That’s what you get with Seth Johnston’s portrayal of political strategist Lee Atwater in Robert Myers’ 1992 play Atwater: Fixin’ to Die, produced by the company run by Johnston and his wife Lark, Drag Strip Courage.

Actually, your initial preconceptions about liking or disliking the man who, in some ways, changed the game for his biggest clients, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, depends on your partisan affiliation.

There’s no denying the man had some brilliant ideas, trying to help the Republican party realign in the years after LBJ and the Southern Strategy.

Directed by Nicholas Zebrun with minimal set pieces in the small space at Arts Fifth Avenue (production design and lighting by Lauren Kirkpatrick), Fixin’ to Die sets up as a one-man show, but there are small appearances by Steven Cashion, Steven Alan McGaw and D’Lisa VaShawn in multiple roles, and Kirkpatrick as a reporter.

Set from 1972 through Atwater’s untimely death in 1991, the play is narrated by Atwater as he tells of his important strategies in changing times. He convinced Ronald Reagan that MTV was the way to reach youth and swing voters (“they have a very short attention span”).

It was his idea to use escaped convict Willie Horton as a way to bring down Michael Dukakis in his presidential bid against Bush the elder. He came up with GHWB’s slogan “Read my Lips,” inspired by Dirty Harry.

And he convinced voters that Greenville, S.C., Mayor Max Heller wasn’t a viable candidate because, as a Jew, he wasn’t born again.

Myers’ script is filled with witty lines, such as when a black student protestor (VaShawn) refers to one candidate with “he made Birth of a Nation look like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Atwater informs us that “politics is nothing more than low-level warfare,” and, at one point, he concludes that when the other side does your work for you by screwing up, it’s all good.

Zebrun uses quick pacing, working with Kirkpatrick’s lighting, to change scenes from Atwater solo to those with other characters.

Johnston, long critically praised as one of the area’s finest talents, is everything you want in this character as written by Myers: harsh, funny, crackling with superb timing and, most importantly for someone in politics, intense magnetism, which is usually reserved for candidates and not behind-the-scene folks.

In one scene, Johnston stares quietly at the TV as we hear snippets from the debate in which Dukakis’ running mate Lloyd Bentsen says to Dan Quayle: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Johnston’s face is a swirl of anger, intrigue and jealousy. There might be concern there, but the wheels are still spinning.

Johnston has been the dynamic force behind Drag Strip Courage for years, but this is the first DSC production that doesn’t just feel like the Seth Johnston show. Those around him rise to the challenge.

To say that the play has parallels to current politics would reduce it; strategizing and mudslinging have been integral to political systems for millennia. Given the craziness right now and the rules that have already been rewritten in the past year, you have to wonder how Atwater would have reacted to words that have come out of certain candidates’ mouths.

He’d probably be jealous that he didn’t think of them first.

Atwater:

Fixin’ to Die

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