Playwright Doug Reed is a local-theater hero. His wildly popular comedy The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker has sold out the Bartell Theatre on several occasions. The venue was packed Friday night when Mercury Players Theatre performed his latest work, The Opiate of the Missus. The production runs through Oct. 27.
Reed has tapped into something that motivates locals to consume drama. Like Tragedie, Opiate is informed by the real-life drama of our current political climate, but it trades the recent Capitol protests for Eisenhower-era suburbia. In the play's program, Reed describes his civil but uneasy relationship with a right-wing neighbor. He acknowledges his own liberal hypocrisies and highlights a theme that's shaped many of this year's political races: extremism.
"Extremist" seems like an understatement when applied Opiate's protagonist, Jeannie Moore (Liz Angle). The wife and part-time campaign manager of entrenched Republican congressman Willie Moore (William Bolz), she's a true believer. Though Willie is a flip-flopping pragmatist, Jeannie is fully convinced that the world is on the verge of being taken over by godless communists. She's not afraid to accuse friends of high treason, either. After a heated political debate breaks out during her weekly ladies' bridge game, she gets a visit from God himself. He tells her to spread the message he shares with her, but nothing more. Jeannie finds his instructions vague and climbs into the backyard treehouse to get closer to him.
When reporters find out about Jeannie's bizarre behavior, Willie's 17-point lead vanishes. Jeannie continues to camp out in the treehouse as her world unravels, even when her daughter Wendy (Tiffany Orr) encounters trouble at school. Wendy looks to her distracted father and ruthless mother as role models, which leads her to launch a smear campaign during a jealous competition for a jock. Not that Jeannie would have discouraged her. Even when confronted with Wendy's offenses post-epiphany, Jeannie minimizes their severity. Despite speaking directly with God, she doesn't change her own attitude or her family's self-righteous red-scare tactics.
DJ Henry "Bloodhound" Moore (Ned O'Reilly) -- Willie's blind, black-sheep brother -- cues early-'50s hits between scenes. The very first scene in his music studio reveals this show's polish. It's clear that a large production staff invested lots of time and effort in Opiate. It's a well-scored and well-acted original. The music and transitions are all sharp and suitably placed. The set design is also excellent. While the most recognizable names in Tragedie belonged to actors, Opiate boasts nearly as many notable designers.
In the show's final scenes, Jeannie accuses her only loyal disciple for assault and uses the ensuing sympathy she gains to swing the vote Willie's way. While the rest of the play rolls along at a measured pace, pausing for period music or a short soliloquy from Bloodhound, this resolution feels abrupt. Just as God speaks, the Moore family's McCarthyist accusations save the day -- for themselves, that is.
This a big, ambitious play, and, at times, subplots like Wendy's feel too drawn-out. The production looks and sounds good, though, and it's quite clever at times. As the Moore family knows, these are the ingredients of success, at least when it comes to politics.