There’s one at every Thanksgiving dinner, the family member or friend who pontificates and preaches about politics, the rest of the guests be damned. Even if you are in philosophical agreement, it’s wearying.
Now you can envision Ellen (Aubrey Saverino), the fiercely committed pontificator of Lisa Kron’s In the Wake, through March 4 at San Diego Repertory Theatre under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. The first scene of In the Wake’s 80-minute-long first act is devoted to Thanksgiving 2000 in an East Village apartment, with freelance journalist Ellen in the company of her extended family – incredibly patient live-in lover Danny (Francis Gercke), his sister Kayla (Jo Anne Glover) and Kayla’s lover Laurie (DeAnna Driscoll), and Ellen’s longtime friend Judy (Stephanie Dunnam). Meanwhile, the specter of the still-unsettled presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore hovers over the proceedings and feeds Ellen’s lengthy diatribes. It’s all a precursor to Ellen’s gradual discovery that passionate and righteous though she is, she has a blind spot, and it comes with consequences beyond the political. When Ellen meets and falls for Amy (Karson St. John), a gay filmmaker, her house and her heart become divided. And you know what they say about a house divided.
Kron intended Ellen to be an allegory for a changing America, she says, and that’s clear enough in the self-revelations Ellen makes in Act 2. But the balancing act between political and personal awakening is a tenuous one. Ellen is so relentlessly didactic that she’s exhausting and not consistently sympathetic. Her righteousness feels like narcissism, particularly in the wake (pun very much intended) of the love triangle she creates.
In the Wake’s polemics should more frequently defer to visceral emotion of the kind Amy expresses when Ellen chooses between lovers. The discourse-dominated scenes may be sharply written, but they’re less human.
A screen above the stage flickers before each scene with footage from the 2000 post-election coverage and infamous moments from the subsequent Bush presidency. Between that and Ellen’s personal missteps, there’s plenty of collateral damage to go around.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.