Plan-B Theatre’s new show, “Nothing Personal,” plays out like a living nightmare––it’s only logic is poetic, it feels at turns both sudden and prolonged, and it reminds you of things you’re really afraid of. Its subject is Susan McDougal, who was incarcerated for contempt of court during Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation in the ’90s, and has since been an advocate for prison rights. As I entered the Rose Wagner’s studio theater Thursday night, Susan McDougal was pacing a bleak square of light (subtly executed by Jesse Portillo) as she did a few more minutes time and the audience seated itself. When the lights dimmed, she was joined by her torturer, the demonic Kenneth Starr (Kirt Bateman) who proceeded to ask her over and over again the “three questions” she so famously refused to answer.
The interactions that ensue are historical fiction, and focus on the most salacious part of Starr’s strategy to dethrone Bill Clinton––forcing McDougal to admit to an alleged affair between herself and the then chief-of-state, who had already testified to the contrary. You need not remember the complex details of the Whitewater scandal to digest the action. The true subject is two differing studies of insanity, compare and contrast.
Bateman as Starr is a vessel for political anger at the right––a hulking amalgam of hypocrisy and villainous behavior American liberals love to hate. Dramatically, this works relatively well–– Bateman revels in turning Starr into a real sicko. When he waterboards McDougal, I know it’s probably not what really happened to her, but it still feels close to the bone–– and she was in fact subjected to eight months in solitary confinement. In another passage, meant to be equally chilling, Starr tries to deconstruct McDougal’s understanding of truth, reality and justice in a muddled speech meant to evoke the right’s intellectual infection by fundamentalist Christian rhetoric. This tact isn’t as scary as it should be––perhaps this is an issue on which I’m just more exhausted than angry, or perhaps the study of religious conservatives’ particular use of language isn’t quite up to snuff.
McDougal, who ends up just as crazy as Starr, is a compound image of oppressed groups––a victim of the U.S. prison-industrial complex, of the torture we now associate with Guantanamo Bay, and someone abject simply for the crime of being an honest, middle-aged woman. Her character is more ambiguous than Starr’s and thus altogether more interesting. April Fossen, who recently played another much less formidable woman in Miguel Santana’s “Real Housewives of Utah County,” makes the most of her role, keeping us guessing if she will break until the play’s final moments. The turn, when we realize that what we are seeing may in fact be in her sleep-deprived mind, is also excellently executed, thanks also to the work of Dee-Dee Darby Duffin, who plays McDougal’s prison guard or “matron,” the work’s only supporting role.
“Nothing Personal” is worth seeing if you’re strangely nostalgic for the ’90s or if you want to see something that mixes up your anger at the American right and renders it a fever dream. Maybe its introspective value is limited, it likely won’t make you question your existing beliefs, but it will make you think about how you might enact them under pressure––and as live entertainment, it’s quite a ride. Check out more about the play and its playwright, Eric Samuelsen on an episode of SLUG’s Soundwaves From The UnderGround.