Matthew Gibbon, the legendary president of a prestigious Midwestern college, is never happier than when at the center of a fight. Unapologetically arrogant, Matthew has fiercely fought to establish his college as a bastion of liberal ideology, ruling the institution as a colorfully eccentric dictator, a staunch defender of the power of free-thinking. As playwright Sharr White’s intellectually and emotionally complex new work Sunlight begins, Matthew would seem to be facing the disintegration of his job, his legacy and possibly his college.
An astonishing act of vandalism has taken place on campus, and the neoconservative forces that have been systematically attacking the left-leaning president are now accusing Matthew himself of being the criminal. He faces a vote of no confidence led by the conservative dean of the college’s law school, the fiery and slightly paranoid Vincent—who happens to be married to Matthew’s daughter, Charlotte. The family, along with Matthew’s feisty longtime secretary Midge, find themselves holed up in his opulent home, alternately fighting, plotting, explaining and defending their various positions.
What might have become mind-numbingly ponderous is instead a roller coaster of surprises, disclosures and brilliantly written one-liners. Developed over the last year at the Marin Theatre Company, and recipient of a 2009 Edgerton Foundation New American Play award, Sunlight is now running in its world premiere at MTC, which, under the artistic direction of Jasson Minadakis, who also directs this play, has become known for its dedication to launching new playwrights. White stands among the company’s best new finds, a bold writer who knows enough to place his play’s intense intellectual debates within a context of real human conflict. After its Mill Valley run, Sunlight will go to three other national companies.
Though some critics have accused the play of turning toward melodrama in the second act, audiences are sure to respond powerfully to the late-in-the-game twists that ultimately give the play its heart and soul.
With remarkable confidence, White allows his story and its central mystery to unfold as slowly as a blanket gradually pulled from some hidden artifact. As each new element comes into view, the entire picture keeps changing, right up to the play’s final moments. With dialogue that includes passionate academic discourse, such stuff requires a steady-handed director and a first-rate cast, and MTC’s production has both. Minadakis keeps the pace up, powering through sections that other directors might have stopped to wallow in. His cast is up to the task, presenting a quartet of characters that are each as flawed as they are strangely noble.
As Matthew, Charles Dean is a raging, wounded lion, too full of his own certainty to recognize he’s run out of last-minute tactics. In Dean’s hands, Matthew is an amazing character, impossible to pin down, an omni-dimensional crusader who’s lost track of what he really stands for. Kevin Rolston plays the conservative Vincent as his own kind of wounded animal, as convinced of his own positions as Matthew is of his, though in Vincent’s case, he’s willing to stop at nothing to defend his ideas, his family and even his country.
At the center of this epic battle are Pentagon memos that Vincent drafted, supporting the government’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on Afghan detainees. The late revelation explaining why Vincent is so steadfastly convinced of the moral rightness of torture has been described as “improbable” by some reviewers; tell that to the friends and family of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Vincent’s ultimate decisions may be morally reprehensible—and it’s fairly certain where White stands on this issue—but the recognizable human pain that powers it is palpably clear in Rolston’s aching, clench-fisted performance.
Charlotte, possibly the play’s most difficult role, is nailed by Carrie Paff, another actor skilled at playing hard and soft at the same time. As Midge, to whom White gives many of his best lines, Wanda McCaddon is all ice and fire, both grieving for the end of Matthew’s once-magnificent career and furious at how he appears to have squandered everything so flippantly.
Sunlight signals the arrival of a serious and talented new playwright, and in this complex, elegant production, MTC gives Sharr White a first-class debut.
‘Sunlight’ runs Tuesday&–through Sunday through Feb. 14. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday&–Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 7pm. Also, Feb. 4 at 1pm; Feb. 7 and 12-13 at 2pm. $33&–$51. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, 415.388.5208.
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