Review: A sharp examination of the role of journalism in TheatreWorks’ ‘Confederates’

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Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence, Left) and Will (Richard Prioleau) corner Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll) about a picture she took in the world premiere of “Confederates” at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

One of the earliest journalism lessons I ever learned took place in my days as a cub reporter.

A reporter in our office did an interview with the family of a little boy who was sexually abused. He clearly conducted a very sensitive interview with the boy and the boy’s mother. But he made a huge mistake – he made them a deal.

The deal came in the form of how to label this abuse. The mother was adamant that the reporter uses the term “private parts.” And the reporter agreed.

The problem with that was the editor wanted to use the term “penis.” And this disagreement went on for the next 30 minutes, an argument that was a difference in phrasing. “Private parts” makes the point argued the reporter. Clearly labeling the abuse correctly is the entire story countered the editor. The reporter was clearly stuck, having to answer to his leadership despite the fact that his standing with his subject lied in a precarious position.

There is a similar dilemma for the character of Will in the TheatreWorks production of playwright Suzanne Bradbeer’s world premiere production of “Confederates,” a hit product of the 2015 New Works Festival. Will is a reporter with a conscience, born out of his singing abilities at a summer camp as a teenager. He reconnects with Maddie, an effective turn by Jessica Lynn Carroll, who had a crush on him at that camp. Maddie is now a woman navigating the fully unwanted position of being the daughter of a major party presidential candidate.

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Will (Prioleau) is ready to achieve journalistic fame, but at what cost? (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Being young and carefree, not fully grasping the magnitude of being thrust in the spotlight, Maddie makes a huge mistake in the form of a picture, and shares that mistake in Will, her trustworthy friend. Will understands that he is sitting on a powder keg of a story, one that will change the presidential race, and one that will potentially damage Maddie for the rest of her life.

“Confederates “ doesn’t start off with a whirlwind of promise. For the first 15 minutes or so, the acting style is very staccato and not terribly effective or natural, making the play head in a not-so compelling direction.

Where the play heats up exponentially is when the picture is first discovered. Everything from that point changes – the structure, the development, the clear intentions that all the characters have been given, and ultimately the payoff that comes with a jarring resolution.

Richard Prioleau as Will is largely effective in the role of a young reporter who knows his life, along with the life of his subject, will change the moment his decision is made. Just a few days prior, he was trying to get into a poker game with some journalistic heavy hitters without knowing the difference between a jack and a spade. Now, he’s sitting on a powder keg of a story, ready to drop a royal flush on everyone.

Where Prioleau is at his strongest is in revealing his inner torture. There may be visions of Pulitzers dancing in his head, but at what cost? When you are a reporter, do you have the benefit of feeling pity, compassion? Does an old friend get cut some slack? Yes to the former, not necessarily to the latter. A friendship absolutely cannot cloud your judgment. Will needs to understand that he is paid to report, not paid to be a friend.

Stephanie, played with scene stealing verve and hilarity by Tasha Lawrence, does not hesitate to remind him of this. She is a fellow reporter who puts herself square in the center of press junkets and stump speeches, chasing down politicians for features that focus on the rather sanguine promise of their gardens.

When it is revealed to Stephanie what Will is dealing with, the tug of war begins. Bradbeer’s masterstroke of the pen has everything to do with the many levels of possibilities she introduces, none of them becoming muddled or jumbled. She has effectively entered the psyche of a young reporter that has to go from ideal to grizzled all because of a simple photo.

It certainly helps that director Lisa Rothe has a field day staging the production on the sharp multi-function set design, created beautifully by designer Andrew Boyce. The set, much like the action, moved swiftly, decisions made quickly.

In the end, there are deals offered. But if they are made, what is the cost? Who loses – a young girl, or journalism?

There are no easy answers, but plenty of tough questions.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Confederates”
Written by Suzanne Bradbeer
Directed by Lisa Rothe
The Word: A bit of a slow start heats up quickly in this searing examination of humanity and the role of a journalist in the American press.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through Aug. 7th
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $19 – $80
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

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