Review: The Adult in the Room Tells Nancy Pelosi’s Leadership Story

Orlagh Cassidy as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Politics. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. This article is a review of The Adult in the Room, a one-woman show about U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that has begun a two-week run at the Victory Gardens Theater (aka the Biograph) in Lincoln Park. The play focuses on Pelosi’s early life in a Maryland political family, her marriage and move to California, and her career in Congress as she moved through the Democratic ranks to serve as minority leader and Speaker of the House.

This engaging show is written by Bill McMahon, directed by Heather Arnson and Conor Bagley, and well performed by Orlagh Cassidy as Pelosi. But first a little background on why this was probably a little more surreal for me than others in the opening day audience.

Most people who know me know I’m a passionate advocate for making our food system better for people and for the planet; my day job is with FamilyFarmed, a non-profit organization. Since last year, I”ve also been writing about food, music and the arts for Third Coast Review.

But for 30 years, I was a political journalist in Washington, D.C., for a once-august publishing company called Congressional Quarterly. Electoral politics was my specialty, and I led our elections coverage team from 1998 to 2009. My wife and I moved to Chicago in 2011. After 30 years dealing with politicians, I got my wish to work with people trying to effect positive change at the grass-roots, community level. It’s hard to hermetically seal off something you did for 30 years though, so I took the opportunity to cover The Adult in the Room.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

The setting for this narrative of Pelosi’s life and career is a webinar the Speaker is conducting from her office for Running Start, a real organization that encourages young women to seek public office.

Although Cassidy is not a look-alike for Pelosi, and is 28 years younger, she effectively captures her mannerisms: her measured way of speaking, her stylishness in an off-white pantsuit, her ability to put on a smile even after fielding calls from her assistant about the latest outrage by Donald Trump or the restiveness of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the Democrats’ left wing (although at one point she stress-binges from a box of See’s Candies, produced in her hometown of San Francisco).

The early part of the play focuses on Pelosi’s upbringing in a Maryland political family, with her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., serving in the U.S. House and then as mayor of Baltimore, and her brother Thomas III also holding the latter office. She rejected her mother’s wish for her to become a nun and graduated from college, but married young and put her own ambitions on hold to raise five children. It wasn’t until after she and Paul Pelosi moved the family to California that she inched her way into politics.

It was when Cassidy, as Pelosi, uttered the name Sala Burton that it hit me: I was about to briefly relive the last 24 years of my past career. I had only recently started covering politics when Burton, Pelosi’s House predecessor, died in 1987. Burton had urged Pelosi to run to succeed her, though with the admonition, “Are you ready?” Pelosi was ready, won a tough primary, and has never been seriously challenged for re-election since.

Cassidy walks the audience (and her fictional webinar) through Pelosi’s at first gradual, then rapid rise to power, as minority whip in 2001, minority leader the next year, and riding voter disaffection with President George W. Bush to a 2006 surge that gave the Democrats a majority, and made Pelosi House Speaker—still the highest political office held by an American woman.

Her first stint as Speaker was short. Although Cassidy/Pelosi declares the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act as her proudest accomplishment, the Republicans’ scorched earth campaign against that health care law coupled with a furious backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency sent the Democrats toppling and Pelosi back to the title of minority leader.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

The play continues with the events we are now living with every day: the implausible election of Trump as president, Pelosi’s early recognition that Trump’s dishonesty and demagoguery would make him impossible to negotiate with, and the pendulum swing in the 2018 elections against Trump and his congressional enablers that restored Pelosi to Speaker.

Throughout, Pelosi is portrayed as fending off demands from Democrats to impeach Trump, stating that the Republican majority in the Senate would make it a futile exercise. (Her dealings with the president’s infantile rages and the aggressive precociousness of her own activist wing prompted the line about Pelosi having to be the “adult in the room.” )

But after maintaining a mostly breezy tone, the play turns dark at the end. At the end of the webinar, Pelosi receives a call from her aide that makes her realize that avoiding impeachment proceedings is no longer an option. The stage goes dark amid a roar of electronic noise, and Cassidy reappears as Pelosi, wearing an austere black dress. She warns that America is entering a perilous time, and quotes Sala Burton again, “Are you ready?”

If you are ready to learn more beyond the public persona of Nancy Pelosi, The Adult in the Room will be performed through February 15 at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave.), Tuesdays through Friday at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2 and 5pm. Tickets are $49. Running time is 80 minutes.

Bob Benenson
Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.