Cardinal, Second Stage Theater, Tony Kiser Theater

"Time Passed and it Became Irrelevant"


2nd Stage Theater Company
At Tony Kiser Theater

Carole Rothman (Artistic Director)
Casey Reitz (Executive Director)
Christopher Burney (Artistic Producer)

Written by Greg Pierce
Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Becky Ann Baker (Nancy Prenchel)
Anna Chlumsky (Lydia Lensky)
Alex Hurt (Nat Prenchel)
Adam Pally (Jeff Torm)
Stephen Park (Li-Wei Chen)
Eugene Young (Jason Chen)

Creative Team:
Derek McLane (Scenic Design)
Jennifer Moeller (Costume Design)
Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Design)
Leah Gelpe (Sound Design)
J. David Brimmer (Fight Director)
Donald Fried (Production Stage Manager)
Alexandra Hall (Stage Manager)
Bethany Weinstein Stewert (Production Manager)
Seth Shepsle (General Manager)

Cardinal is the Benjamin Maurice Rosen Commission for Second Stage Theater

Image courtesy 2nd Stage Theater website

February 18, 2018

You may have heard of my home town: Los Alamos. Nestled in the cradle of the New Mexican Jemez Mountains, its infamous history includes Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, and enough nuclear material to blow up the world 11 times (or more - who knows?). When the Lab closes for a snow day, the town closes. When our secrets were leaked to China, it made national news. Today, there are specialists in infectious disease, census data, linear neutron acceleration, and nanotechnology (and probably lots of nuclear weapons...just guessing).

But growing up, Los Alamos was just my home town. I would walk from my grandma's house to Otowi Station Bookstore with $6 in my pocket, intending to buy a Beanie Baby. I'd walk out with a science experiment. That's just what happened when you grew up in a town of 20% PhD Physicists. We'd leave our doors unlocked at night, and I'd walk to the park barefoot with my best friend and my dog. My dad's Celtic band would play sold-out shows at the pizza parlor.

Today, Otowi Station Bookstore is closed, a result of economic downturn and online publishing (cou*Amazon*gh). A traumatic fire in 2000 burned down 235 homes, which were replaced by multi-million dollar mansions. My best friend's house was sold years ago, and going "home" feels more like the Twilight Zone than a walk down memory lane.

Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager says it best, "Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings." We are usually drawn to our hometowns for the people, not necessarily for the place.

Cardinal, by Second Stage Theater, plays with this theme. It opens with high stakes: how do you save a small, former manufacturing town with a dwindling population? Cafes are empty, Main Street is sparse, and the waterfront a smelly place best avoided.

We're presented with a unique proposition: literally paint the town red! For better or for worse, Anna Chlumsky's character argues, we live in the age of branding, and what could be a better than an Instagrammable photo destination!?

And this is the crux of Chlumsky's character. Yes, she loves her home town, but she's also an outsider. As a highly educated ("Oberlin" earns a titter from the audience), failed band manager in Brooklyn, she is wholly focused on enticing tourists, businesses, and following academic 'urban renewal' methods. At odds is the city's Mayor, unconvincingly played by Alex Hurt, who reluctantly goes along with the scheme (and HOW, exactly, did they find the city funds for so much red paint??). Shenanigans ensue. A Chinese business tycoon buys out the local cafe to open a dumpling shop. A small family moves. Someone is shot. Unintended consequences rear their ugly heads.

Thankfully, despite the undeniable comedic talents of many in the cast, the play avoided becoming a sit-com-like farce of 'how bad can it get.' When the Mayor decides to return the town to normal the audience is left with no question in their minds: painting the town red was a bad idea.

Both characters want to improve the town: Chlumsky through over-the-top modernization, the Mayor through basic, milktoast improvements (a renewed waterfront and a local marching band? that's all?).

Ultimately, both characters are wrong. Look at Detroit, Gary, Youngstown, and Saginaw, where population has dwindled by some 20% in the last 15 years. Restoring a waterfront isn't going to save these cities (too little), nor is painting the town red (too much). Roland Stephen's 2012 Renewing America working paper After Manufacturing argues that, "Growth more often comes from bolstering already successful initiatives, even at the cost of increasing inequality among different regions." In other words, some small towns may disappear for an overall region to thrive. It's the cost of change.

Although it's unlikely that my small town will struggle to maintain residents - the lab attracts too many physicists and tourists looking for Breaking Bad - Cardinal humanized the struggle facing many in America today. As residents of a small town, their greatest fear is that time will pass and make all this - their lives, struggles, cafe bakery signs - irrelevant.

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