The Best Women: The Ladies of TAG's ‘The Best Man’
Courtesy of TAG — The Actors' Group
Following a PRESS CONFERENCE to announce TAG’s addition of Saturday matinees to the run of The Best Man, a staff reporter finds herself in the Green Room with Ann Brandman, Cecilia Fordham, Amy K. Sullivan, Courtney Coston, Gail Kishida.
SM Reporter: Well, what a surprise! An impromptu press conference with the LADIES of The Best Man, premiering this weekend at TAG.
Cecilia (Mrs. Gamadge): Isn’t there always “a woman behind every great man?”
Ann (Alice Russell): We are those women in this play and contributing each in a different way.
SM Reporter: Please introduce your characters and what you like about playing your part.
Ann: I’m Ann Brandman. I play Alice Russell, candidate Bill Russell’s wife. I relate to Alice’s New England sensibility (she’s from Maine), though I’m not really a northern Yankee: my father was from Philadelphia and my mother from England – and I ended up spending a dozen years in New York. My parents held liberal views. My mother was a strong Adlai Stevenson supporter, so I was able to identify with Alice. Alice begins as reticent, a bit overwhelmed in the political arena, but ready “to stand by her man,” flawed as he is. Through the course of the play she reveals grit, a sense of humor and a generous heart. She moves from a shy, intimidated prop for her husband to a woman who embraces her value and knows what she wants.
Amy: Joe Cantwell’s wife, Mabel, a southern woman, is a blast to play. She wants desperately to belong, to be accepted, to be good enough. She learned early on that her value is almost solely determined by her outward appearance — and the appearance of her children — rather than by her intellect or her own capabilities. This may not seem unusual for the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, however it stands out in contrast to what we’d like to believe about ourselves today. She balances her happiness on the desperate precipice of her husband’s love and his apathy and dismissal on the other, leaving her an unhappy woman who takes solace in martinis.
SM Reporter: This all sounds so serious.
Cecilia: Isn’t that perfect for satire? Let me tell you, Amy delivers hilarity, as well as vulnerability at the same time. Gore Vidal gives us actors serious work to develop believable people in the comedy of life. I play Sue-Ellen Gamadge, leader and force for the Party’s Women. She is fully a southern, powerful, political grande dame, capable of delivering the women’s vote, so the candidates and their wives pay attention to her. Her values are conservative, but she is ever the lady, using all the techniques of her gender, age, and experience to get what she wants.
SM Reporter: What happens when you three are onstage together?
Amy: Killer comedy! (laughter)
Gail: Amy is so funny.
SM Reporter: Gail and Courtney, what are your roles?
Courtney: I play a reporter, a delegate, and Catherine, who is a staffer for the Russell campaign. Oh, yes, and “the bar fairy.”
SM Reporter: Bar Fairy? What?
Courtney: Wait ‘til you see the scene changes. Kevin [Keaveney] (our director) is really imaginative.
Gail: All cast members are in the scene changes, each with specific things to do. But the best part is dancing through the changes!
Courtney: A number of the cast play multiple supporting roles helping to shape the whole play. As a reporter, I’m in several scenes, but I haven’t a name, so to help me with my identity, I gave myself the name, Mildred Rue, who wants to get the best story. You hear my voice and see my silhouette.
Gail: I’m a reporter, too, and I love everything about the press conferences. I want to get the best story and headline, so my hand is always in the air. I also play a party delegate.
SM Reporter: Gore Vidal’s play was produced just in time for the Kennedy-Nixon presidential run-up, set in the summer of 1960, at a presidential convention in Philadelphia. How do you relate to the time period of the day?
Courtney (Reporter, Catherine): Let’s just say I was born in the wrong era. I love to cook, sew, and I adore the fashion of this time period!
Cecilia: Moving from Tennessee and Louisiana to live in Manhattan from the mid-50’s as a college student and aspiring actress-director, this is the era of my young adulthood and the run-up to voting in my first presidential election. I recognize the issues of the time and the satire created by Vidal. Had to do some conjuring to bring back how we behaved, what the “rules” were and even the physical settings. That helped me inhabit Mrs. Gamadge.
Gail: I was in high school during the ‘60’s. I remember my teen years—all joyful! The relationships transcend the time period. I try to bring that alive. The stage opens your eyes to how people interact in real life.
Courtney: It was a history lesson for me. I wasn’t born yet. (smile)
Amy: It would be marvelous if the issues raised in the play, including gender, were a thing of the past, but as a society and culture we are not there yet. The topic of gender may appear to be treated with cavalier disregard. With regard to the role of women in the construction of the play, the male roles are clearly the focus. The ladies do have a bit of fun!
Cecilia: There are 11 men and 5 women in the cast. That tells you something.
Amy: A favorite scene for me to play is one in which Mabel Cantwell, Alice Russell and Sue-Ellen Gamadge, finish up a press conference — focused on “the men” — and find ourselves with a few minutes together. The dynamic among us three builds, despite Mabel’s protestation, “it’s a shame they couldn't have us girls doing everything together…” Without giving away too much, it becomes clear that solidarity amongst the women is not possible. We could explore the “whys” of the issue from each character’s perspective — self-protection, lack of trust amongst “our own,” or fierce loyalty to those (men) who made it possible for us women to be at the convention in the first place?
Ann: I would love to see the play staged with a woman as one of the candidates for the presidency - could it work with a gender reversal?
SM Reporter: That’s a big question. Then this play is not just a blast to the past or a political satire of another time?
Courtney: I think it’s about desire, passion, competitive nature…
SM Reporter: Those are pretty universal human characteristics. How does that apply to the character you play?
Courtney: One of the parts I play is the young, sweet campaign ”go-fer,” Catherine, who wants to gain love. She may not know from whom, yet she badly wants someone to love her, I think she thinks it’s Mr. Russell.
As for competitive: As a female reporter, I want to be the best in the profession. I want to be recognized as the same caliber as the men around me. I call that “me” a harsh name to remind myself to be fierce and competitive.
SM Reporter: Does it start with a B? (laughter) Amy, for Mabel Cantwell what does it mean to win?
Amy: As I said earlier, Mabel Cantwell wants desperately to belong, to be accepted. Oh, if she could only make it to the White House! She would finally be somebody, and be happy. At least that’s what she believes.
Ann: Winning for Alice is relational. Though she ponders her own ambition, she is more concerned with doing what's right... for her country, her friends, and for her family. Though not a complete fool for love, Alice does stand by her man when he chooses decency over power.
Cecilia: For Mrs. Gamadge it’s all about power and being the center of attention. Power to shape the winning nominee, wife and family as necessary. That’s the political goal. She knows that she has a formidable power in shaping the women’s vote. She’s a master (or mistress) of backroom bargaining, honey-dripping talk, and acting on her word. She knows she has power over the men if she has the women on her side.
She would run for president if it were 2016. Beyond the façade, she has experienced life, lost her husband, has strength of character, a code of “morality” and believes in herself.
SM Reporter: Why should the audience come to see The Best Man?
Gail: Come find out how you can Win by Losing. Also, discover the 1960’s. We have the music, the atmosphere…. Such a fun time to live!
Ann: Find out that the personal is political and vice versa. And, although women have gained ground in the last 40 years, we are still fighting some of the same battles.
Amy: (looking at Ann) She is so intellectual. (Laughter) Come see these actors. It’s been a privilege to work with them and our director, Kevin Keaveney. His vision and a spirit of collaboration has pushed us all.
Cecilia: I agree with all of you. Yeah, I know, Sue Ellen Gamadge-talk. Come see newcomers and veterans in this production, watch us women “work it.” And be prepared to laugh with us and at us.
SM Reporter: Loved this conversation, Ladies. Maybe we should invite the men to join us now?
Ladies: Of course, we’ll be by their sides!
Cecilia: Or in front of them :)