Not so many years ago in America, there was a political party that believed that low taxes and less regulation would create a better economy for all. It believed in free trade between nations with minimal tariffs, the need for a strong defense nationally and the right to bear arms personally, and that the federal budget deficit was an existential threat. Its most popular figure forged friendly relationships with the leaders of the other major party, and was quick to remind his own followers that the other side were opponents, not enemies.
One may have disagreed with this party’s positions, but they were defensible and many (though like all parties, not all) of its key figures honorable. This is the party that Dallas Cray joined as a young man in Utah — and a party he discovers no longer exists as he serves as one of its United States senators in 2018.
In “The Little Senator That Could,” Kirsten Grady has written an insightful and sympathetic play about what the production’s Capital Fringe Festival webpage calls “one of the last sane Republican senators.” It’s more a study of one person’s wrestling with his conscience than a political tract; she wisely alludes to the current president only briefly and indirectly.
Cray faces a dilemma. The secretary of defense has been credibly accused of direct participation in torture while serving at Guantanamo Bay a decade ago. Cray had made the tactical decision to vote to confirm this nominee because he needed the political capital to oppose other picks of his own party’s POTUS. Now he must decide whether to speak up.
Grady (who also delightfully portrays Cray’s take-no-crap chief aide Rae) gives her protagonist two paths. One — direct confrontation — may mean political suicide and early retirement; ex-Sen. Bob Corker is name-dropped. The other is to follow the course of so many former critics of the president and accept the new way of things — the route chosen by two of Cray’s Senate colleagues, referred to simply as “Lindsey” and “Ted.”
The humor here is mostly light, more “SNL” than “Veep.” Ted, the junior senator from Texas, seems uncomfortable around what he calls his “fellow human senators” and just might be a secret immigrant from a constituency far, far away. Lindsey is terrified of two things: Bernie Sanders, and that a wild Mardi Gras party at a strip club years ago might become public knowledge.
At the heart of the show is the bond between Cray (an exceptional Alec Scheller) and his wife Stacy (Kate McGowan). Though Dallas has gone from idealistic college student to Capitol Hill swing vote during the course of their relationship, these two still like nothing more than cuddling in a “fort” they’ve built in their D.C. home to play Mario Kart, and Netflix and chill. Grady and McGowan have developed Stacy into a complex character — an outspoken, independent woman in contrast to her public role as a silent senatorial spouse.
Before Cray makes his final decision on whether to defy party pressure and back the defense secretary’s impeachment, the play jumps back to those heady Reagan days when Dallas and Stacy first met. As the head of the college Young Republicans, Dallas finds himself in several delicate situations of the sort that would later bring scandal to today’s political figures.
These scenes seem intended to show us whether Dallas took the path of honor or expediency in the past. But it’s all over too quickly, and we jump back to 2018 for an abrupt conclusion. This rushed ending was my sole objection to this outstanding play.
Running Time: 80 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up.
“The Little Senator That Could” at Christ United Methodist Church Honey, 900 Fourth Street SW in Washington, will run through July 27. For tickets and more information, click here.