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[whitespace] Politics perverts gender in 'Daughter'

By Heather Zimmerman

WITH An American Daughter, Wendy Wasserstein has created a comedy about women and power that has taken on added resonance since the play was first produced in 1997. For the play's California premiere, TheatreWorks offers a skillful production of this bittersweet examination of women's continuing struggles in both the political and social arenas.

Stephanie Dunnam is winning as Lyssa Dent Hughes, a talented doctor just nominated to be U.S. surgeon general. A devoted mother and the daughter of a senator, Lyssa seems to fulfill in every way the varied expectations behind the play's title. At the heart of what blossoms into a media circus threatening to destroy Lyssa's career are two minor issues: a mislaid jury-duty notice and an innocent comment about her housewife mother that enrages the stay-at-home moms of the heartland.

In the outcry that follows Lyssa's comment, Wasserstein demonstrates that modern American women remain as embattled as they have become "liberated." Under biological and social pressures, for example, Lyssa's closest friend, Judith (Judyann Elder), often feels like less than a person because of her infertility, even though she is an expert oncologist who has saved many lives. Another factor complicating Lyssa's chances of confirmation is the ticklish issue of class: Lyssa comes from a wealthy world, which not only calls into question whether she perceives herself bound to the duties of an "ordinary" citizen but also makes it easier for her detractors to discount her accomplishments.

The play tackles a host of hot-button political issues. Lyssa's conservative senator father, Alan Hughes (Robert Parnell), opposes her pro-choice stance, but out of deference to their family ties, father and daughter agree to disagree. More of a loose cannon is family friend Morrow McCarthy (Steve Marvel), a neoconservative gay columnist who also staunchly rejects Lyssa's stand on choice. Most menacing of all to Lyssa's ideology (and to her marriage) is her husband's former student Quincy Quince (Jessa Brie Berkner), an opportunistic "new feminist."

Wasserstein's delightfully witty dialogue offers some great laughs, but it also renders her observations all the more hard-hitting; no amount of clever repartee can take the sting out of the play's assertion that in the current climate, what's true in the political world in general is doubly so for women: that what you accomplish isn't half as important as how your actions appear. But making the most of this precarious position, Wasserstein seems to suggest that as "American Daughters," women must accept that there is no one definitive way to be and continue to believe in themselves.


An American Daughter plays at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View; Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, plus Saturday (Sept. 19) at 2pm, Sunday Sept. 20 at 2pm and Sept. 13 at 7pm, Tuesday at 7:30pm through Sept. 20. Tickets are $25-$33. (650/903-6000)

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From the September 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.

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