Edmund T. Morris’ white picket fence that greets us inside Theatre Row for Theatre Breaking Through Barriers’ world premiere of Public Servant may not initially impress us, but it proves before long to be the ideal metaphor for Bekah Brunstetter’s gripping play – it’s both deceptively simple and deceptively smart. Periodically, this ideal symbol of the old-fashioned North Carolina community where the work takes place opens up to reveal the play’s other sets, including a politician’s office, his home kitchen and the backyard of a nearby house. Similarly, the show’s three main characters also reveal themselves to be far more complicated and multi-dimensional than they initially seem.
Ed Sink (the excellent Chris Henry Coffey) is a local district commissioner, co-owner of a family furniture business, estranged husband to a bipolar wife, and trying-to-be-caring father to Hannah (an extremely realistic Anna Lentz), who has returned home after her freshman year of college full of newfound knowledge, an obviously more liberal political point of view than the one with which she was raised – and one big secret.
In the play’s first scene, Brunstetter quickly makes it clear how overwhelmed Ed is trying to satisfy everyone he already knows – family, constituents, fellow officials – which explains why he barely gives the time of day to Miriam (the wonderful Christine Bruno), a brash, physically disabled New Yorker who has come to North Carolina to sell her mother’s house only to find a proposed highway project has rendered it worthless. Admittedly, Miriam isn’t someone who is easy to help – she’s often rude and angry (but again not for the reasons we originally suspect) – but you can’t initially blame her for seeing Ed as nothing more than one more big-talk, do-nothing politician.
Rather too conveniently, Miriam and Hannah end up not just running into each other more than once, but Hannah (who feels she can’t trust either of her parents to help her with her big problem – she needs to get an abortion) ends up turning to Miriam when she needs someone to go to the local clinic with her. Brunstetter lets us know (none too subtly) that Hannah was raised in a pro-life house (she even wore a t-shirt with a fetus on it to school as a little kid), yet she has no regrets about terminating the pregnancy. Still, she is rightfully concerned how her family might react to her decision.
Intriguingly, by the time this development occurs, we’ve become privy to the real reason for Miriam’s attitude. She’s been desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant for years and needs the money from the sale of the house to continue these procedures. And here’s where Miriam surprises us. While being honest about how painful it is to deal with a teenager who got pregnant without even trying, she nevertheless offers her full emotional (and physical) support to Hannah. (And lest you think Miriam will suggest Hannah go through with the pregnancy and give the baby to her, well, think again. Kudos to Brunstetter, a writer on NBC’s This Is Us for not taking that soap opera route!)
While the women may seem to get the juicier parts (both actresses, as well as Coffey, briefly play other characters), Ed finally gets his own dilemma, as he must come to terms with why exactly he decided to become a “public servant” and how he can become a better one. (Yes, you might figure that last part out before it’s revealed.) Under Geordie Broadwater’s fine direction, Coffey’s Ed ultimately becomes far more than a stick figure or stock character, but a man who, in middle-age, must finally redefine his own life and values – both in public and in private.