THEATRE: Daisy well-paced chronicle of manipulative advertising

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The play by Ottawa’s Sean Devine, continued its run, some 19 months after it was interrupted by a global pandemic declared the morning after opening night in 2020.

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By Sean Devine

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Co-produced by Great Canadian Theatre Company with Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre

To Dec. 17 at the GCTC, 1233 Wellington St. W.

Tickets and times:

Live theatre returned to the Great Canadian Theatre Company this week as Daisy, a play by Ottawa’s Sean Devine, continued its run, some 19 months after it was interrupted by a global pandemic declared the morning after opening night in 2020. 

At the time, everyone thought the show would be back on stage in a couple of weeks so the set remained in place, tickets were rebooked and the cast and crew stood by, waiting for a callback that never came. Now, almost two years later, it returns to a world reshaped by a novel coronavirus, jumping into the age of misinformation with an historical context that seems even more relevant today. 

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Written more than a decade ago by Devine, a political junkie who ran for the NDP in the last federal election, the play is set during the 1964 American presidential campaign and revolves around the creation of the first modern political attack ad seen on television. The ad depicts a sweet and innocent girl counting the petals she plucks off a daisy before a menacing male voice takes over, counting down to a nuclear blast that, presumably, wipes out the planet. 

The message was clear: A vote for Lyndon Johnson is a vote for peace, while a vote for Barry Goldwater means total obliteration. Provocative and shocking, it ran just once and was wildly successful, contributing to a decisive win by LBJ. But it was also widely criticized for playing on emotions, accused of “killing a little girl” on television.

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Based on true events, the play follows the Madison Avenue team that came up with the ad, with Brad Long as the ambitious Sid Myers, Marion Day as the equally ambitious Louise Brown, and Geoff McBride providing comic foil as the nervous and paranoid Aaron Ehrlich. Veteran Ottawa actor Paul Rainville plays the ad-agency boss, Bill Bernbach, with a fitting blend of fatherly concern and corporate ruthlessness. 

The most eccentric character is Tony Schwartz, the agoraphobic sound engineer who was compelled to gather sounds — in fact, his recordings of people counting is what inspired the ad concept, although his input is downplayed by Brown, who claims it was her idea. This time, Schwartz is played by the GCTC’s outgoing artistic director, Eric Coates, and it’s great to see him bring to life the personality quirks and lofty theories of a man who was almost certainly a genius. Coates also directs the play. 

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Two of the characters are fictional, and go a long way to establishing the restless atmosphere of the mid-60s. Copywriter Louise is the only woman on the team, and White House liaison Clifford Lewis is the only Black person. Played by Andrew Moodie, Lewis occupies an important position during a period marked by race riots and the civil rights movement. 

It’s a wordy script but well-paced and one suspects it would be a lot less interesting without these two. Moodie is definitely the standout of the cast, his voice and demeanour giving Lewis a dignified presence that commands attention in every scene. Day, on the other hand, seems stiff and flighty as Louise, who see-saws between maintaining integrity and chasing success, even as she betrays Tony.  

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The setting is established with video design by Frank Donato, who assembled historical black-and-white newsreel images from that pivotal year to serve as the backdrop. In one clip, Goldwater delivers some chilling words that reflect the call-to-arms tone of a certain former president. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater said. “And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” 

The line convinces our heroes that the Republicans must be stopped by any means necessary. The Daisy ad is approved, despite its ominous tone, and LBJ is elected. But in a subsequent real-life plot twist that reminds us to take every political message with a grain of salt, Johnson soon turns around and launches a military campaign in Southeast Asia. So much for voting for peace. 

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