Anybody who's ever watched a close relative slip into age-related dementia may have to turn away when Ron Gephart is onstage in Wendy Wasserstein's Third, a subtle and deceptively edgy essay on Bush-era emotions and anxieties. "I'm Jack Jameson," Gephart shouts defiantly against the howling wind and the driving rain. "And I know what I know!"
What Jack, the successful toy-store owner turned dottering old coot, knows is how to count backward from 100. And he usually can't get that right either, a circumstance he ascribes to "the bastards" having taken everything away from him. Jack's only a bit player in this impressively nonideological drama about cultural profiling in education and American politics. But his confused, painfully comic ranting is the key to unlocking the play's riddles. Like Jack, we all "know what we know." And that's usually the problem.
Wasserstein, most famous for her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, saved her best work for last. Third, which was written just prior to her death from cancer in 2006, begins with the basic assumption that all assumptions — especially the most deeply entrenched — must eventually be challenged. It's an insightful meditation on generational expectations and an ironic expansion of the idea F. Scott Fitzgerald put forward in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," when he wrote, "At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide."
Using Shakespeare's King Lear and the life of author Jane Austen as its central metaphors, Third examines the life and deeply entrenched assumptions of Jack's daughter, Laurie Jameson, a celebrated feminist literature professor at the onset of America's ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Laurie, played by Irene Crist, fetishizes one of her students, a smart, charming wrestler named Woodson Bull III. She presumes that Woodson — or "Third" as he likes to be called — is a child of privilege, and because he's an athlete, she assumes he's an intellectually incurious brute. Laurie describes him as a "walking red state" she wants to pound on the head, making him into an unfortunate and undeserving stand-in for George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers. The frustration she feels being powerless in the face of an unexamined military adventure and a wave of angry anti-intellectualism sweeping the nation is all taken out on Third. When he turns in a paper on King Lear that far exceeds her expectations, Laurie accuses him of plagiarism and sets out to ruin his academic career.
Wasserstein wasn't aiming to settle any political scores but to show how even the nimblest minds can ossify and how our beliefs can prevent us from accessing things we may have once known intimately. She shows how easy it is for intellectuals — especially those who prize tolerance — to grow intolerant.
After an obnoxious turn as Romeo at Playhouse on the Square, DJ Hill redeems himself with his effortless depiction of Third as a goofy, disarmingly charming Everydude with a better-than-average head on his shoulders.
Third also boasts a top-shelf supporting cast. Jade Hobbs plays Emily, Laurie's rebelliously normal daughter. Laurie Cook McIntosh is convincingly understated as a free-spirited professor struggling with cancer.
Third isn't about uniting red states and blue states, fathers and daughters, men and women, or the tolerant and the intolerant. It's about uniting the mind, body, and spirit. It's about learning how to apologize and to accept apologies. It's about an audacious and somewhat ahead of its time notion that the anger we may feel when we become adrift in an unfriendly world can be replaced by hope.
Third's simplicity belies its sophistication, and this production is a soothing lozenge for a country that's shouted itself hoarse over our seemingly unbreachable cultural divides.