Playwright Lucas Hnath is very deliberate about letting his audiences know that Hillary and Clinton takes place in an alternate universe.
It's one of an infinite number, he explains through both expositional dialogue and the program's setting note, and very similar to ours except for a few small differences. One is that his lead character, a presidential hopeful and former first lady named Hillary Clinton, smokes. The other, at least in Second Thought Theatre's polished production, is that she's black.
Set in a New Hampshire hotel room during the 2008 presidential primaries, the play covers three tense days in Hillary's march toward the White House. It's not going well, and in a moment of desperation, Hillary asks her husband, Bill, to come and join her on the trail. It's something her campaign director, Mark, emphatically warned her not to do, but Hillary is looking for comfort and reassurance, even if it's from the man who has charmed the world yet let her down so consistently in the past.
But don't go into Hnath's play expecting a satire or parody of the Clintons — he expressly forbids that in the script, and encourages directors to cast actors who do not resemble the famous couple at all. Director Laura Colleluori obliges his wishes with Stormi Demerson and Barry Nash, two eminently talented performers who approach their characters with a fresh sense of purpose. There are no Southern drawls or famous tics, though Nash does end up embodying Bill's intrinsic charm and playful personality.
Demerson is a little trickier. The men who surround Hillary constantly note her cold manner and "wooden" way of public speaking, and beg her to show a little more feminine empathy. From the moment Demerson addresses the audience at the top of the show, she is a cozy fire, radiating warmth and understanding along with intelligence and social savvy. Is this a misstep with STT's production? Or a buried dichotomy within Hnath's play? It's hard to tell.
What is obvious is how the men's comments mirror what so many professional woman deal with daily: simultaneously expected to to be warm and loving "mother" figures while cautioned not to publicly give in to their emotions. Yet being too commanding is off-putting, so there's no way to win.
"I'd rather be his No. 2 than your No. 2," she spits at Bill.
It seems that in this universe, Bill's many sexual transgressions have also occurred, and they — and Hillary's reactions — are referenced often. There's a trite moment when Hillary recounts teaching "her kid" not to cry at life's letdowns, because if you cry once you'll certainly cry again, and the press is not forgiving to emotional women. Yet Hillary appears to get choked up at a luncheon, and Bill and Mark (a terrific Jim Kuenzer) insist that's what spurred voters into helping her win the primary.
Hillary does win here, just as she did in "our" universe. But she wasn't supposed to, as is revealed through a deal made with The Other Guy, a clear Barack Obama stand-in who offered her the VP gig if she agreed to first lose, then gracefully bow out of the race. Sam Henderson is an angrier version of Obama's public persona, and that annoyance simmers when he visits Hillary in her hotel room after her victory, bearing damning details about Bill's latest humanitarian mission to Africa. It's another scandal for Hillary to endure, and another which could sink her presidential dreams.
"But this isn't connected to me," she argues. "I'm not involved." Except she is — and always will be — with the man she chose to stand beside. Hnath wrote this play in 2008, so he couldn't have known that Hillary would revisit her bid eight years later and lose. But who knows? Maybe in that universe, she doesn't.
Second Thought Theatre's production of Hillary and Clinton runs through February 3 at Bryant Hall.