There are many ways we can bond with a play’s protagonist: we can admire their moral character, identify with their experiences — or, as in the case of Son of a Bitch’s vision of Lee Atwater — be swept up by their sheer efficacy and panache.
There’s a comparison to be drawn between Lee Atwater’s subsuming of George HW Bush’s presidential campaign and how we the audience are carried along by the crackling momentum of the story. We’re turned into assistants at a Republican campaign strategy meeting, as Ben Hethcoat’s Atwater prompts us for rejoinders like a preacher stirring up his congregation. We become delighted accomplices as Atwater siezes the reigns of Bush’s re-election effort, transforming it into a Sun Tzu-inspired fever dream of mudslinging, reframing, and doing unto others before they do unto you.
Lucy Gillepsie’s deft script alternates between heated war-room debates and reflective character episodes. Some of the latter are between Atwater and a callow young George W. Bush (Luke Forbes, who entertainingly mimics the future president’s vocal mannierisms) or college sweetheart turned elusive lover Cass (Chloe Dworkin, mixing allure and melancholy). The ebb and flow is well balanced, showing us both Atwater as cursing maverick in the midst of battle, and Atwater as down-to-earth charmer who has a knack for winning over those initially hostile to him.
The story races forward with such energy that morality seems beside the point; we’re along for a wild ride where the stakes are sky-high from the first moment. Director Billy Ray Brewton makes great use blocking and audiovisual supplements, making an intimate space feel both voyeuristic and larger than life. Ben Hethcoat is a force of nature as the alternately thunderous and cloying Atwater, simultaneously conveying southern charm, conviction, and unflappable force of will; he holds the room rapt from the beginning and never lets go. In addition to the cast already mentioned, also excellent are Corsica Wilson as Gladys (Atwater’s steadfast Girl Friday), David McElwee as displaced Bush campaign lead James Baker, and Dennis Gersten as the conflicted idealist Bush Senior.
Gillespe’s story intermixes delight, poignancy, smart dialogue, and an expert sense of pacing. The story is rich with context, but Gillepse’s adroit use of exposition makes it accessible to those not steeped in political history. I believe this play has a significant future.
What I didn't like
As Lee Atwater might have said, not a !$%#@%#% thing.
My overall impression
A relentless, thrilling political dramatization, brought to life excellent actors, perfectly-paced direction, and a top-notch script. Not just for politics junkies.