Knowledge Equals Power in Born Yesterday

Ford’s Theatre examines a classic comedy.

The cast of Born Yesterday, directed by Aaron Posner, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC.
The cast of Born Yesterday, directed by Aaron Posner, at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Garson Kanin was one of America's funniest and most profound writers. When his play Born Yesterday premiered on Broadway in 1946, even he couldn't have imagined how relevant it would be over 70 years later. But now Ford's Theatre is mounting the comedy in a production that is so fresh and has so much to say about human nature and modern-day events, it seems that it could have been written last week.

Born Yesterday takes place in Washington, D.C. in 1946. Harry Brock, a war profiteer, comes to the nation's capital to negotiate a deal with a senator that will allow him to ship much-needed scrap metal from Europe to America. Brock plans to make millions selling it at inflated prices without having to worry about regulations or tariffs. With him, Brock brings a retinue of hangers-on: his girlfriend, Billie Dawn; his lawyer; and his cousin, who does Brock's bidding.

When Brock and Billie meet with Senator Hedges and his wife to discuss the future, Brock decides that Billie is too uneducated to make small talk with the Washington elite. So he engages a young reporter, Paul Verrall, to start tutoring Billie. To Paul's surprise, Billie starts reading everything she can get her hands on, consuming facts on politics, democracy, and American history. She learns about American government. And she starts questioning her relationship with Brock, which leads her to begin to fall in love with Paul, who, unlike Brock, values her as a human being.

Edward Gero plays up all the boorish, unsavory characteristics of Brock, building a larger-than-life portrait of corruption and deceit, not to mention misogyny and brutality — Gero's Brock slaps Billie when she won't obey his orders. Kimberly Gilbert delights in exhibiting a 360-degree turnaround in the character of Billie, from an irresponsible ex-chorus girl to a champion of human rights. Although Gilbert never changes Billie's high-pitched voice and wide-eyed demeanor, under Paul's tutelage, she comes to see what a truly selfish person Brock is and realizes that, since Brock foolishly has had her sign all his important business documents, she has legal power over him.

Cody Nickell plays the intelligent, underpaid reporter Paul as a stalwart character, seriously intrigued by — and more than a little smitten with — Billie. When Billie and Paul expose Brock's chicanery, it's a moment in which two Americans who believe passionately in "the people" triumph over a power broker who doesn't even understand the concept of "the people."

The genius of Kanin's writing and of director Aaron Posner's approach to this comedy is that they never allow the two major characters to become caricatures. Scenic designer Daniel Lee Conway creates Brock's magnificent, two-level hotel suite decorated in gray and white, with generous touches of gold and lavender. A graceful, winding staircase connects the two levels, beyond which a huge window reveals the Capitol Building. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt dresses the actors in clothes appropriate to 1946. The men's suits are dark and large in the shoulder. Billie's dresses are formfitting, the sort of clothes that would be available to the girlfriend of a wealthy man. Her transformation from chorus girl to bookworm is also evidenced in the evolution of her clothes and the glasses she dons while reading more and more books.

Born Yesterday is far more than a standard 1940s rom-com where a woman leaves her bullying boyfriend and changes her life and falls in love with a better man. It is also a skillfully written political satire that speaks as clearly to human foibles and passions in 2018 as it did to those in 1946. Some things never change.