WATERTOWN — Now that Mitt Romney has lost the presidential election, Big Bird is presumably out of danger.
But the furor that erupted when the GOP nominee vowed to eliminate the federal subsidy to PBS brought back memories of the even fiercer battles in the 1980s and 1990s over public funding for the arts. Especially in campaign season, culture and politics invariably make for a volatile combination.
That fact informs but does not define Lee Blessing’s “Chesapeake,’’ a 1999 solo play now at New Repertory Theatre, directed by Doug Lockwood and starring Georgia Lyman as a performance artist at loggerheads with a conservative Southern senator.
Lyman delivers a superb, many-shaded portrayal. She brings intelligence, wit, and an expressive, long-limbed physicality to a part that is typically played by male actors (Mark Linn-Baker originated the role). The gender switch makes sense, given the prominence of female performance artists in the culture wars. What’s more notable is how vividly and persuasively Lyman crosses over into another species to play a dog, and one with an outsize personality to boot.
She is hobbled initially, though, by the didactic and polemical thrust of “Chesapeake.’’ While there are flashes of wit, the first act is weakened by Blessing’s ham-handed approach to dramatizing the contrasting ideologies of Kerr, the envelope-pushing artist, and Senator Therm Pooley, a reactionary whose name suggests an alloy that includes Strom Thurmond.
“I dreamed, not of entertaining an audience but of attacking it,’’ Kerr says. “And I dreamed of audiences heroic enough to survive.’’
Pooley is so inflamed by Kerr’s work — in which she is disrobed by audience members while reciting selections from the Song of Solomon — that he makes his outrage at it the centerpiece of his campaign. Decrying her performances as “Po-or-NOG-graphy,’’ Pooley demands that Kerr’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts be revoked.
The playwright sides so overtly with the artist, making the politician such a caricature of a grandstanding demagogue, that an aura of smug, Blue State self-congratulation threatens to eclipse the ideas being thrashed out in “Chesapeake.’’ (At a point where the original script refers to Ted Kennedy, the New Rep production has updated it to Elizabeth Warren.)
Exalting capital-A art with lines like “Even failed art is better than no art at all,’’ this play lacks the finesse Blessing demonstrated in “A Walk in the Woods,’’ his 1987 study of the relationship between two arms negotiators, one American, one Soviet. In that exemplary Cold War drama, the motivations and points of view of both characters are fleshed out.
“Chesapeake’’ grows more layered and intriguing, however, after a surreal turn of events that begins when Kerr hatches an elaborate scheme to kidnap Pooley’s beloved pooch, a Chesapeake Bay retriever whose nickname is Lucky. Matters go calamitously awry and Kerr is transported into . . . well, let’s call it another state of being. It’s one that affords her an exceptionally up-close perspective on her enemy, allows “Chesapeake’’ to peer into the mysteries of existence, and gives Lyman a chance to explore nuances of character and behavior, human and canine.
She is barefoot throughout, striding and scampering across Deb Sullivan’s simple set, its watery mixture of off-white and light green shapes evoking Chesapeake Bay. Sullivan also designed the lighting, which effectively signals abrupt shifts in tone and tempo.
Lyman, a fine actress last seen at New Rep in Steve Yockey’s mysterious “afterlife: a ghost story,’’ displays exquisite timing in “Chesapeake,’’ and her characterizations are studded with grace notes. She lingers amusingly over the word “bark’’; when confronted with evidence of the senator’s dalliance with an aide, her blurting revulsion manages to hilariously express the reaction of two characters, not just one. Lyman is equally skilled at capturing the swooning trance of delight into which a dog falls when his head is being stroked by his owner, and a canine’s single-minded sense of purpose when engaged in a certain other activity that, if performed onstage, just might result in the loss of an NEA grant.