Over the summer, I took a road trip to a tiny town in Upstate New York for a special farmer’s market weekend. For me, it was a chance to escape the fast-paced hustle and bustle of NYC and its immediate suburbs, where I live, work, and play (and stress). But while I was there, I had the unexpected chance to meet and talk with several locals — the kind of people who have spent generations making this small town their own.
You see, the only reason I had ever even heard of this place — a speck on the map about three hours from my own home — was because a large company with reality TV fame had bought out a significant portion of the town’s industry, and put the spotlight on their organic, farm-to-table type productions. This corporate takeover changed the way the small town operated in huge ways: on one hand, many residents who had been out of work since bigger industries were left abandoned suddenly had stable jobs with this big company. Many people (like Deb, the lady who rented me a portion of her home through AirBnB) saw increased tourism from cityfolk like me as a way to help with the bills. On the other hand, many locals were a touch resentful that Big Business was coming in and changing their way of life. And their only option if they didn’t like it? Well, they could always move out.
This is a scene playing out across many American cities in modern times, and it was at the front of my mind while watching 2econd Stage Theater‘s production of Cardinal. I was lucky enough to catch one of the final Off-Broadway performances of the show at midtown Manhattan’s Tony Kiser Theater, starring Becky Ann Baker (Nancy Prenchel), Anna Chlumsky (Lydia Lensky), Adam Pally (Jeff Torm), Alex Hurt (Nat Prenchel), Stephen Park (Li-Wei Chen), and Eugene Young (Jason Chen).
The story (a new work by playwright Greg Pierce) follows the story of young mayor Jeff Torm (Pally) as he’s tasked with bringing some new life, prosperity, and financial funds to his economically depressed Rust Belt hometown, Cardinal. He’s the kind of guy who knows everyone in town and has some pretty good ideas on how to help them, but he lacks the confidence and assertiveness to actually put policy into action. When his high school friend Lydia Lensky (Chlumsky) moves back in with her parents after seemingly giving up of her big city career in Brooklyn, the two join up on brainstorming ways to invigorate their town.
Lydia dreams up the idea to paint their entire neighborhood center a bright cardinal red to increase tourism. She believes that outsiders will flock to their now Instagram-able town, and leave behind their cash, word-of-mouth promotion, and new ideas. After convincing enough residents and small business owners to give their storefronts a shocking color makeover, news starts to spread and soon tourist buses begin driving through the once-empty streets. Sure, the influx in visitors is good for the rural town, until the mayor realizes the tours are being operated by Chinese businessman Li-Wei Chen (Park) and his son Jason (Young) who has his eyes set on buying out properties in Cardinal to flip them into his own corporations. It’s quickly obvious that even the shiniest, smartest, and “best” ideas may not actually be any good for the people living through their implementation.
This show touches on several hot topic issues that define modern politics on a local level. Many Americans are directly feeling the down times that economic recession and dissolving of industry brings. Many of those same people worry that their already unsteady jobs will be taken by computer-run robots, immigrants, advanced technology or other “outsiders.” All of the characters in this play experience their own feelings on the matter, but express them through very different ways. Shop owners like Nancy Prenchel (Baker) and her son Nat (Hurt) want their community to remain full of the longtime residents she knows by name — even though she’s losing profits as those folks move out of town for work opportunities. Entrepreneur families like the Chens want to develop their own big ideas in a community safe from racial conflict and violence, though they’re getting offensive slurs hurled at them when they step out in this new place.
Through all of this turmoil and conflict, the show manages to be funny, hopeful, and even a touch sarcastic. It’s not about the depressing kind of rhetoric you often hear, which is if you can’t keep up, you’ll be left in the dust. As I shared, the drama brought my memories back to the real-life conflict that happens when you know you need to embrace change but it’s not coming naturally. Cardinal showed that though there may be many ways to look forward into the future, one of the best ways to inspire productive change is to look back on the qualities that made a place great in the first place.