Barack Obama may have won the presidency, but Hillary Clinton has hardly disappeared from our consciousness. Will she be our next Secretary of State? Would she have more influence in the Senate? Or is she too junior there to wield the kind of power she’d have in the cabinet? For the past sixteen years, since Bill Clinton first touted his marriage as a twofer of leadership, Americans have examined his wife’s choices, no matter how minor or how grand.
Mia Barron, who plays the lady herself in the new off-off-Broadway show HILLARY: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending, which is playing now at the Living Theatre (located, fittingly, on Clinton Street), cops to her share of the scrutiny. An Obama supporter from the get-go, Ms. Barron says the play’s complexity helped allay her concerns about her character. “It really takes itself out of the more limited question of, was [Clinton] a good candidate?” she explained. “Whatever I think about where she’s arrived politically, in terms of her actual ideology, she’s unbelievably smart and ambitious and had to suffer through so much, not only sexism, but just sort of being in the background when she is someone who, if she was a man, would have been in the foreground.”
Ms. Barron’s own political convictions helped her land HILLARY. She first met playwright Wendy Weiner en route to Pennsylvania in 2004, where the two canvassed for John Kerry. (They made the same trip for Obama this year). Ms. Weiner would later suggest Ms. Barron to Julie Kramer, her play’s director, when the two were searching for an actress bold enough to tackle Clinton. “I asked Wendy, if you could have anybody, even a movie star, for this, who would it be?” Ms. Kramer remembered of the process. “She was like, I’ve always kind of pictured Mia in the role.”
Ms. Barron, 35, is open and vibrant; she was drawn to HILLARY, in part, because the material combined her passions for drama and activism. “I have a lot of anxiety about feeling sort of useless, being part of the theater when there’s a lot of things that need to be attended to in the world,” she said. “I really love doing political theater because of the way it contributes to those questions in a more overt way. But obviously it has to also work theatrically . . . [This show is] very engaged in looking at women and power, and what you have to do to be in power, yet it’s a deeply funny theatrical show.”
HILLARY imagines the Clintons, with their gargantuan appetites and glaring foibles, as the playthings of Greek deities. An adolescent Hillary Rodham resolves to follow Athena, the goddess of wisdom, by devoting herself only to her career; Aphrodite, Athena’s rival, responds by introducing Rodham to the charismatic Man from Hope. It’s a clever, often moving tour through the life of Mrs. Clinton, who evolves from earnest teenager, to fired-up Wellesley commencement speaker, to proud Arkansas first lady, to failed health care reformer, to disillusioned wife. Barron masterfully captures Clinton’s cadences when delivering her famous speeches but wisely avoids a strict impersonation in private scenes, where she plumbs her character’s classically-scaled proportions of vulnerability and steel.
Ms. Kramer, the director, says Barron has more in common with her character than she realizes. “She works incredibly hard,” Kramer says. “She was the first person in the cast to learn all her lines. That’s a quality of Hillary’s – she’s an extremely hard worker.”
Ms. Barron was similarly passionate about The Coast of Utopia, the 2006 Lincoln Center Tom Stoppard-athon that became a career milestone for her. Bent on joining the cast, she implored director Jack O’Brien to consider casting her. “When I heard they were doing that, I thought, oh my God, I would do anything to be in that in any capacity,” she said. “I was actually doing a play at the time that overlapped a little with the Utopia rehearsals. I just wrote Jack O’Brien a letter and I explained how much I wanted to be involved and sort of begged him to work around me.” Mr. O’Brien did, assigning Ms. Barron small parts throughout the trilogy and as Martha Plimpton’s understudy.
A New Yorker (she presently lives in Harlem), Ms. Barron pads her income with a recurring role on Adult Swim’s cult show The Venture Bros., where she voices a character named Molotov Cocktease. Her slate is clear after HILLARY‘s run ends on December 20, and Ms. Barron says she’s just excited to be back home, having spent much of the past year performing in other cities. “I was just in L.A. doing a play and seriously, I don’t like feeling that relaxed all the time!” she said. “I like in New York that there’s a certain level of alertness and that everyone’s pursuing different things and that everyone’s lives are all bumped up against each other and that there’s a million different stories.” Including Hillary Clinton’s.
Visit the Living Theatre website for showtime and ticket information. Performances through December 20th.