"EVERY REFERENCE to Washington will resonate with Washington audiences," says Kyle Donnelly, director of Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" at Arena Stage. Donnelly finds, however, that the 1946 political comedy, set in the nation's capital, possesses a "naive optimism" about what American government is supposed to be, one that contrasts sharply with the ambience of contemporary Washington.
"It's a play that came out of postwar World War II, and there was a sense that in a way, anything could happen," she says. "I think we're in a much darker time right now -- for me, anyway, I feel that. And it's refreshing to be reminded of the basic principles upon which our government is founded.
"I think now we're sort of in crisis mode, for so many reasons: post-9/11, Katrina," Donnelly says. "We're in crisis-management damage control right now. And I think from what I understand about the play, we were just past a huge crisis [then], and there was a sense of hope."
In the show, corrupt businessman Harry Brock (Jonathan Fried) comes to town in hopes of coercing a senator into helping him profit from a shady import scheme. Feeling hindered by the social ineptitude of his beautiful but dimwitted girlfriend, Billie Dawn (Suli Holum), Brock hires a savvy newspaper reporter, Paul Verrall (Michael Bakkensen), to tutor her in the ways of Washington government and society. (Judy Holliday originated the part of Billie Dawn on Broadway, later winning an Academy Award for her film performance.) The scheme backfires when Dawn turns out to be a quick study who catches on to her boyfriend's nefarious ways and doesn't approve.
Do the characters bring to mind any contemporary Washingtonians?
"The whole idea of buying votes and of gaining influence and of having work thrown your way -- certainly the name of 'Halliburton' has appeared in rehearsal," Donnelly says.
The show has inspired the director and her ensemble cast of 12 -- all but three of whom are Washington-based actors -- to take a fresh look at the city in which they live and perform.
"It's been really fun for us to remember that 'one man, one vote' does matter," Donnelly says. "Some of us have done things like, when we're out of rehearsal, [taking a look] at the original copy of the Declaration of Independence, or we'll walk over to the Lincoln Memorial or we'll go to the Jefferson Memorial, just to remind ourselves that these things are not just some [trivial] idea. . . . That's been kind of wonderful.
"In the play, the character of Billie Dawn talks about for the first time visiting places like that, and we get a chance to sort of live in the shadow of them," she says.
"Born Yesterday" is suitable for audiences ages 12 and older and may even offer a lesson in American politics that's "more exciting than your average history class," says Donnelly, whose 8-year-old daughter recently attended a run-through.
"Billie Dawn doesn't know even the basics of how to vote and who Tom Paine was and what democracy really means. It's actually a wonderful way for a young person to grasp that basic information in a very fun way," she says. "There's not a huge amount of it in the play, but enough to remind them of why it's important that they learn to vote, why it's important that they learn to participate, why it's important that they be vigilant about what's going on in American government.
"Plus, it's fun."