As we close in on the 2020 presidential campaign, International City Theatre in Long Beach offers up a streaming version of Sean Devine’s political drama, Daisy, a searing evocation of the 1964 presidential campaign and the creation of the most famous television advertisement ever shown, “Daisy.” Those of us of a certain age will always remember the little girl who plucks petals off a daisy, counting as best she can until she reaches ten, after which an echoey count down is heard culminating in the explosion of a thermonuclear blast. President Lyndon Johnson’s voice is then heard to declaim, “These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or to go into the dark. We must either love each other or we must die.” The ad only ran once, such was the effect upon the people of the United States and the political uproar that ensued. I saw that horrifying ad as a seventeen year-old, who had already been subjected to duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, and later, the intense, chilling days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sean Devine’s play centers around the Manhattan advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, which was tasked by the the Johnson administration with creating television ads for the Johnson campaign, which was was then in competition with the surging campaign of Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York. Ed F. Martin takes the stage as the smooth talking agency head, Bill Bernbach. Alex Dabestani is the high strung, sexist art director Sid Myers, with whom Erin Anne Williams as copywriter Louise Brown must endure. Matthew Floyd Miller as television producer Aaron Ehrlich, projects a certain jittery lack of focus behind his ever-present dark glasses. Phillip Lewis as White House lawyer Clifford Lewis, is a no-nonsense apparatchik who keeps the ad team on the beam, searching for a killer ad. The most central and interesting character in the play is the quirky sound genius, Tony Schwartz, played by David Nevell, the true creator of the “Daisy” ad.
As the play moves through time from Spring to Fall in the ad agency and in Tony’s sound studio, there is no lack of news in the outside world—race riots in Harlem, a simmering, escalating conflict in Viet Nam, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and presidential nominating conventions. Rockefeller lost his shot at the presidency with a very public divorce and remarriage, that brought boos at the convention and assured Johnson the nomination. Meanwhile, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater kept on saying disturbing things about the use of nuclear weapons, which led to the national screening of the “Daisy” ad. Remember, at that time there were only five channels, ABC, NBC, CBS, education, and local.
Daisy is a fascinating play and could not be more timely. The video production by ICT, directed and produced by caryn desai [sic], is a step up from streaming plays I have seen. The projections and sound by Dave Mickey are excellent, as are the archival scenes by video editor Mike Bradecich. Rounding out the creative staff are costume design by Kim DeShazo; props by Patty Briles; and wigs by Anthony Gagliardi.
Streaming theatrical productions are getting better, but the action is still constrained by the necessities of face-forward presentation by the actors in their individual zoom panels. I don’t see a solution for that until Covid-19 is gone. May it come more sooner than later.
Presented by International City Theatre, Daisy is streaming on demand at http://www.InternationalCityTheatre through November 7 at 7 pm PT/10 pm ET. Tickets are $20.