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Main Street Theater puts on the regional premiere of Sean Devine's Daisy.

Image: John Lienhard

Amid the relentless critique of social media and the swirl of “fake news” accusations that never seem to go away, Sean Devine’s Daisy is a play that asks a timely question: Do ads manipulate the fears we already have, or do they actually change minds? 

The play’s regional premiere directed by Troy Scheid focuses on the 1964 presidential election and the landmark ad campaign run by its ultimate victor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the ad, an innocent girl counts the petals on a daisy while a male voice—ostensibly Barry Goldwater, the hardline Republican candidate—ominously counts down to an atomic explosion.

Jodi Bobrovsky’s interesting set designs includes screens on the wall to project the crucial ad—only about 30 seconds long—as well as images from the campaign and the adjacent Civil Rights movement. Main Street’s intimate theater, set up in the round configuration, does well to showcase the opposing forces involved in the ad’s creation, leaving me rapt throughout, particularly as I admired Paige Willson’s excellent 1960s costumes.

Rutherford Cravens depicts Bill Bernbach, both head of a New York advertising agency hired by LBJ to win his presidential election and mentor to Louise Brown (Rachel Logue). Louise is a woman in a man’s world, but Bernbach sees her talent, and she’s catapulted from selling ketchup to working on a national presidential advertorial campaign. In many ways, Daisy is Louise’s story—a microcosmic look at ‘60s feminism, complete with all its ambivalence and contradictions. 

Louise complains early in the play that her ideas are stolen by her male colleagues, but immediately upon being promoted to this team, she steals the idea of the history-making ad from Tony Schwartz (Jonathan Minchew-Gonzalez), an expert on sound.  Minchew-Gonzalez has some of the play’s best lines as he adds philosophical gloss to even the crass world of advertising.  He tells us things like “Even when we are quiet, there is no such thing as silence” and how the audience for ads is not “a target” but “a workforce.” Ironically, Tony is agoraphobic—fearing public spaces, the very arena he wishes to address and influence.

Meanwhile, Louise is a closet Republican with daddy issues working on a Democratic campaign. The play works through her mixed feelings in a manner similar to that Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day; Louise keeps making the same points over and over, but proceeds with the campaign ad anyway—even dressing up in a fabulous bejeweled outfit to accept an award for the achievement, only to surrender it to Bernbach in a hollow rejection of the whole enterprise. Logue really does do well with a challenging role, which is why I’ll reiterate that my quibble with her character’s stances are not the acting, but the repetitive writing.

In any event, it’s fascinating to watch the interactions among Louise and the rest of the ad team, including Sid Myers (Rhett Martinez) and Aaron Ehrlich (Aaron Echegaray). Particularly insightful is their relationship with LBJ’s African American public relations man, Clifford Lewis (Brandon C. Balque).  Clifford’s disappointment is palpable when the Johnson campaign sidelines civil rights as a priority, and the gift of this play is realizing the kaleidoscope of motivations that grip people when making political and professional decisions—even when on the same “team.”

The play ultimately tells us that it is “easier to provoke voters than educate them,” and the post-run letters from critics of the infamous commercial prove that point.  Yet Devine’s play makes you feel less vulnerable to such “provocations” and leaves you wondering if ads really have the power to get presidents elected. Perhaps such results stem more from our own deficiencies, when, as Bernbach says, your “ambitions are stronger than your ideals.”

Thru April 29. Tickets from $45. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-670. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.

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