International City Theatre’s ‘Daisy’ stuns with clarity and insight

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Photos by Mike Bradecich

Clockwise from top left: Phillip J. Lewis (Clifford Lewis), Ed F. Martin (Bill Bernbach), Matthew Floyd Miller (Aaron Ehrlich), Erin Anne Williams (Louise Brown) and Alex Dabestani (Sid Myers) in International City Theatre’s “Daisy”.

International City Theatre’s (ICT) streaming production of Sean Devine’s play “Daisy” couldn’t be timelier. It’s not only insightful about how we vote for our leaders, but also rivetingly entertaining. Exceptionally sharp acting and production quality combine to create a satisfying and thought-provoking theatrical experience– right in your own home.

But hurry! It’s only available through next Saturday, Nov. 7, when the radioactive afterglow of election day may still be lingering.

“Daisy” dramatizes a pivotal moment in political history– when an ad agency created the first negative television advertisement for a presidential campaign in 1964.

The commercial depicts a little girl counting daisy petals juxtaposed with a nuclear-missile countdown and subsequent explosions. It only aired once.

Though producer and director caryn desai (sic) wanted to stage this play in time for our current election season, COVID-19 restrictions forced it to be produced in an online format, with actors separately filmed but combined onscreen in bubbles against various sets.

See related story: International City Theatre streams potent political play in time for election

Pitch-perfect acting, sound clarity and creative video design (Mike Bradecich) nevertheless allow us to experience a dynamic version of the play on screen rather than stage.

“Daisy” begins two years after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the nuclear specter nearer our shores and a year after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination made Lyndon B. Johnson president.

Leading up to the 1964 presidential election, the Democratic Johnson’s re-election campaign hires a New York ad agency to create an “attacking” commercial against his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, who has a reputation for racial insensitivity and warmongering, saying things like “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Adding to the campaign’s vehemence is Clifford Lewis (believably played by Phillip J. Lewis), an African-American White House liaison invested in Johnson’s “Great Society” promise to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.

Phillip J. Lewis (Clifford Lewis) in International City Theatre’s “Daisy” (Photos by Mike Bradecich)

Deciding on what the ad will portray falls to three of the agency’s top creators – copywriter Louise “Lou” Brown (Erin Anne Williams), art designer Sid Myers (Alex Dabestani) and producer Aaron Ehrlich (Matthew Floyd Miller).

The dynamic among the three personalities is entertaining, and they are all excellent actors, perfectly cast.

Williams makes a clear and strong Lou who bears up against slights to her gender and defends her views about the ethics of a negative campaign. Dabestani gives the quick-witted and easily confrontational Myers a feisty New York accent, and Miller is able to animate the often clueless Ehrlich even behind dark glasses.

Their boss, Bill Bernbach (Ed F. Martin), is grounded but visionary in supporting Lou’s talent, though she is female in a male-dominated environment.

The team is aided by an outsider– agoraphobic sound genius Tony Schwartz (embodied by David Nevell)– who provides the most thought-provoking insights on how people vote based on hopes and fears rather than actual policy. “The audience completes the message,” he says of how images in ads bring out what we already feel.

From left: David Nevell (Tony Schwartz) and Erin Anne Williams (Louise Brown) in International
City Theatre’s “Daisy” (Photos by Mike Bradecich)

Schwartz counterintuitively suggests that the team not use Johnson in the ad at all, or mention Goldwater. He also tells Lou about a previous antinuclear ad he pitched to the UN of a child counting followed by a nuclear countdown.

A month prior to the ad airing, we hear that a Black young man in Harlem is shot by police and rioting has spread through major cities. Tensions also start escalating in faraway Vietnam. When we see the final ad– aired on Sept. 7, 1964 at 9:45pm– the fear it evokes is palpable.

Johnson wins by a wide margin and bombs start falling in Vietnam soon thereafter. The team grapples with fallout from their work, ranging from praise to criticism to an award. Lou is especially affected, having been ambivalent yet complicit and even self-promoting in the ad’s creation.

Regardless of how you vote on Nov. 3, you’ll be provoked by “Daisy” to consider your own ethics, integrity and the reasons you make the choices you do. To create such an interesting effect in an eminently entertaining way is worthy of Tony Schwartz himself.

ICT’s “Daisy” is available for on-demand viewing through Nov. 7. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at ictlongbeach.org or by calling (562) 436-4610.