When it turns political, the American arts scene sometimes descends into such heavy-handed didacticism that it can make Ayn Rand seem as frolicsome as P.G. Wodehouse. So it is a delight to report that the Virginia Political Repertory’s production of “Special Session: Redistricting” avoids this trap, and instead delivers keen observations on homo politicus. The script cleverly weaves two seemingly unrelated plot lines: congressional redistricting and judicial appointments. These might seem unlikely topics for compelling drama, but in the deft hands of the cast they become powerful vehicles for exploring the contradictions of contemporary governance and the foibles of the political class.
The play’s main action transpires over the course of a single day, during which the Virginia General Assembly convenes — ostensibly to take up a congressional redistricting plan ordered by the federal courts. The Republicans, who control the legislature, want to tinker with the current plan just enough for it to receive judicial approval. The Democrats, frustrated by gerrymandering that has kept them from holding more congressional seats, want to throw out the whole shebang and create a plan that will give them representation proportional to their numbers.
Such a shopworn story line could sink the heart of any veteran theater-goer, were it not for the shocking turn it takes near the end. And before we get to that we are treated to another drama: the fight to fill a seat on the Virginia Supreme Court. Jane Marum Roush has few lines to recite as The Woman Scorned once she is named to the post by Virginia’s Governor, played by Terry McAuliffe. The Republicans, led by the deliciously wicked Bill Howell in his role as Speaker of the House, refuse to confirm her appointment despite her obvious qualifications. It soon becomes clear they are miffed that the Governor did not adequately consult them first, as required by protocol — and they threaten to spike her nomination as revenge for the Governor calling them into session before their judicial appeals in the redistricting case had run their course.