Ned Worley is shooting his presidential campaign ad. Jacket slung over his shoulder, he steps forward and pontificates about his widowed, lower-middle-class, Portuguese immigrant mother (his campaign manager insists he call her "mamá," despite Ned's protests), his triumph over cancer, and how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to put himself through school and become governor of Rhode Island. He doesn't mention that he's openly gay, or that his mother hasn't spoken to him since he came out.
In his play "Commander," now debuting at Vagabond Players as a part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Mario Correa imagines the campaign of an openly gay, major-party presidential candidate—a role that feels particularly timely in light of the upcoming elections and the Supreme Court's June decision granting full marriage equality in all 50 states. But while Correa's writing lends insight into the prejudice and lack of representation LGBTQ individuals still face, "Commander" says much more about the theatricality of political campaigns and the consequences of fabricating a public persona out of self-hatred.
All of the main characters—Ned (Mark Scharf), his partner of 12 years Richard Gilly, his campaign manager Frank DeSantis, and Frank's young assistant Zack Maines—are presented as caricatures, to one degree or another. Richard (Thom Sinn) is loud and flamboyant, often making references to Barbra Streisand and other gay cultural icons. The Elmer Fudd-esque Frank (Jeff Murray) is brash and homophobic, insulting and egging his client on like a ruthless sports-movie coach as he puffs on a fat cigar. Zack (David Shoemaker) weakly attempts to mediate between the other three men, stricken with chronic timidity like a sad puppy. Throughout the play, Ned becomes more and more of a cold, power-hungry politician and less of the honest man he claims to be.
The playwright creates these cartoonish characters, each skillfully animated by the actors, deliberately drawing attention to the theatricality and self-satire of political life—and then destroys that illusion. Correa, a gay Chilean native who grew up in Maryland and worked on Capitol Hill for Maryland Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Morella, demonstrates an intimate knowledge of political performance. He builds up and tears apart these caricatures as Ned's campaign, like so many high-profile political crusades, creates and subsequently undoes him.
Initially, Ned appears to be something of an ideal politician: one who honestly wants to enact positive change, both small and large, and believes in reform and transparency. He's intelligent, a scholar of history. He takes pride in the executive order he issued banning biking on sidewalks—apparently a major accomplishment in his gubernatorial tenure—but hopes to take action on a much larger scale.
Richard, however, downsizes his partner's accomplishments—even brushing aside his brief battle with thyroid cancer—and immediately tries to shut down his intention to run for president.
"This is ego talking," Richard says. "You're not a politician, you're just a guy who got lucky."
As awful as this sounds, the faint ring of truth in Richard's remarks grows louder and louder throughout the production. When Ned abruptly announces his decision to run to his partner, he claims his motive is to bring serious change that he couldn't accomplish as governor.
"If I stick around here, I'm a sitting duck," he says.
This is the first eyebrow-raiser: If the presidency of Barack Obama (to whom Ned is often compared, as a potential and unlikely "first" in the White House) has proven anything, it's that the gridlock of the corrupt, partisan system of Washington, D.C. makes national and international change often impossible, and that real change occurs more often in small steps on the local level. If Ned's decision had nothing to do with ego, the presidency would probably not be the solution to his fear of stagnancy.
Before the campaign launches, Ned is advised by his campaign manager to avoid discussing his personal life, though he doesn't need to be asked. As governor, he avoided the issue and remained relatively quiet on marriage equality—and remains unmarried to Richard—because, he claims, of the fact that his state is the second-most Catholic in the country. But it becomes increasingly clear that despite his apparent ego, he hosts bursting levels of internalized self-hatred—the residual effects of his mother's rejection.
Correa envisions the ignorant media probing a gay candidate would likely face: "Has the candidate used Grindr?" "Is the governor a top?" "Has he used ecstasy?" At the same time, Ned's candidacy feels contemporary, with mixed reactions from a country that harbors large populations of both progressives and radical conservatives.
Though he is out of the closet, Ned continues to brush aside questions from reporters (played collectively by Fiona Ford) about his sexuality and the historical nature of his potential presidency. Unlike all other candidates, he has his partner stay at home and away from the campaign trail. But the sacrifices he makes in his relationship for the sake of his campaign end up sabotaging both. He degenerates himself to a one-dimensional political figure, even dropping vegetarianism to become a proud, all-American carnivore, and, in Richard's absence, attempts to paint a distorted picture of their lives—elements that he considers to be "surface" but cut deeper than he is willing to admit.
"Commander" says nothing we don't already know about the dehumanization of political performance—we've seen that repeatedly in political dramas such as "House of Cards"—or the barricades social stigmas create, preventing full equality and representation. But Correa tells the story with such intimate familiarity and witty writing that the destruction of Ned and his relationship feels at once like a penetrating political cartoon and a clairvoyant window into the reality behind a symbolically monumental campaign.
'Commander,' written by Mario Correa, directed by Chelsea Dove, at Vagabond Players through July 26