“Born Yesterday” at Asolo Rep is an entertaining clarion call for civic education

Theater is a place of refuge; and Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Michael Donald Edward’s decision to develop a Washington Trilogy in the early weeks of a new administration is nothing short of brilliant. “The Great Society” was a cautionary tale; “The Originalist” was a peace offering extolling the search for common political ground; and “Born Yesterday” is a clarion call to energize citizens to reassert the founding principals of democracy.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a heavy serving of entertainment in all three productions, especially “Born Yesterday.” Yet beneath the charming and engaging front of the luminescent Billie Dawn (Christina DeCicco) simmers a woman ready to revolt. DeCicco gives one of the best performances I have ever seen on the Asolo stage. In Act One, Billie’s chief concerns are furs, diamonds, and drinking and playing gin. By Act Two, with coaching from smitten journalist Paul Verrall, she has undergone a major shift developing a thirst for knowledge but never losing her quick wit and joie de vivre.

DeCiccio and Boucher (Photo by Cliff Roles)

“Born Yesterday” has an intriguing premise, particularly in our current era. A wealthy business tycoon with thuggish tendencies named Harry Brock (Norm Boucher) brings his girlfriend, Billie, a retired chorus girl, his loyal lawyer Ed Devery (Eric Hissom), and his bodyguard for an indefinite trip to Washington D.C. He endeavors to use his financial influence to buoy his business interests. Devery, one of my favorite theatrical lawyers, relies upon his considerable rolodex and bona fides as a former Assistant Attorney General, to find a willing Senator, Norval Hedges (Don Walker), who takes the “pay to play” bait. The conceit of “Born Yesterday” is that Billie, upon whom we soon learn Harry is very dependent, might embarrass him with the Senator and others in the D.C. social circuit, so Harry hires Paul to spruce up his girlfriend to mix in finer company.

Christopher Kelly and DeCicco (Photo by Cliff Roles)

But the wise-cracking Harry, who could certainly stand some sprucing up courtesy of the charming writer, meets his comeuppance in Act Two. The show is, in many ways, a very fancy billboard for the virtues of a liberal arts education. In just a few weeks, Billie becomes a voracious reader, a connoisseur of opera along with a few strains of danceable music, and fine art. Although there are some dated elements to the play, the basic message that education and a desire to learn can open doors to a better and more fulfilled life ring true today.

Theatergoers can expect to leave “Born Yesterday” excited and energized about a world filled with Billie Dawns, who are discovering a desire to understand our brilliant constitutional system. In fact, as they say it is always darkest before the dawn, and Billie is a wonderful beacon of light.

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