HOLDING THEIR OWN What’s the best way to unsettle an ideologue? PHOTO: DARREN SETLOW
A certain branch of modern liberal academia could stand a little likening to Lear, as stubbornly entrenched in its own theories, deconstructions, and Weltanschauungen as it is. In Third, the final work of esteemed playwright Wendy Wasserstein (produced at Portland Stage, under the direction of Paul Mullins), it is personified in the character of Laurie Jameson (Karen MacDonald). A high-power professor at a prestigious New England liberal-arts school, Laurie was part of the radical youth's entrance to academia in the aftermath of the '60s, when she helped transform this college from an all-men's school into a staunchly liberal institution. As for her own values -- knee-jerk feminist, anti-corporate, anti-military, indiscriminately pro-minority-Other, etc. -- even she admits that she hasn't re-evaluated them since she was a student herself.
Her catalyst will be Woodson Bull III, a Midwestern, Groton-educated wrestler, a would-be sports agent, and (possibly) a conservative (played with great candor, humor and sympathy by Nick Dillenburg). He's an utter alien here amid queer theory and the first transgender dorm in America, but he's a lot more game to learn from the liberals here than they are to learn from him. Here he's seen, at best, as a dumb jock; at worst, as an embodiment of the white male heterosexual hegemony that many of the professors rose up against in their own youth.
And he infuriates Laurie. But he's got a sharp and open mind, and happens to know a lot about King Lear, which Laurie's class is studying via demasculization theory texts like Shakespeare and Cross-Dressing. When his own psycho-sexual interpretation is intelligent beyond her expectations of him, her worldview can't handle it, and she accuses him of plagiarism.
Anyone who even skirts academia these days will recognize its language and proclivities: Lear's daughter Cordelia, in Laurie's post-patrimonial critique, has been wrongly "girlified" by the traditional Western reading, made a "typical female victim." Laurie's flaw, though, isn't her angle of feminist critique, but rather her inability to allow for anything outside her black-and-white political schematic. Her flaw, that is, is a reverse-discrimination, a lack of inclusiveness that's opposite but similar to one she once fought against. Thus her daughter Emily (the wryly radiant Sara Murphy), reluctantly enrolled at Swarthmore and dating a bank teller, is disappointing to her in comparison to her other daughter, a lesbian dating an adulterous Guggenheim poet. Thus when Laurie's cancer-stricken friend Nancy, a lefty professor on the academic honesty committee (Maureen Butler, with warmth and wit), votes for Woodson, Laurie doesn't speak with her for months.
Set in the politically acrimonious, red-vs-blue period of 2002-3 (during the build-up to the Iraq war, Wasserstein makes acute points about the narrowness, self-importance, and insularity of liberal ideals when taken to their logical extremes, cordoned off from the lives of "ordinary" people, and let to calcify and divide. This intellectual arrogance, Woodson says to the liberal elite at large, is how it lost the country. And indeed, the shift in discourse and results between the last two elections would seem to have borne him out.