It was poignant, it was funny, it was sad, it was tragic, and the real-life outcome of the plot was true. And, perhaps it was a lesson before its time.
Leegrid Stevens hit it all. The award-winning New York-based playwright brought to the heart one of the most tragic incidents to ever occur in Mesquite in exactly the right context. Stevens’ play ‘Mesquite, NV’ which ran for four October weekends at the intimate off-off-Broadway Workshop Theatre started out quite humorous, turned tragic and ended in a thought-provoking examination of human cross-play.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings with this play,” Stevens said in an interview with Mesquite Local News reporters Linda Faas and Barbara Ellestad who both attended the play in New York City. “I found a CNN news article that was written in August 2011 about the election fracas and wanted to create a unique perspective on the function of anger in American politics.”
The play was a depiction of the mayoral election held in Mesquite in 2011 when incumbent Mayor Susan Holecheck was striving to be the first mayor ever re-elected in Mesquite. In the play, veteran actress Liz Amberly deftly portrayed Mayor Linda Hadley. Popular Mesquite Councilwoman Donna Fairchild, portrayed by Jackie Jenkins as Anna Albright, was considering a run against Holecheck.
Albright maintained Hadley had allowed passage of a scandalous golf course water contract by appointing a complicit fellow councilman to the board of the water district. Stevens used this thread of his plot to great effect as Hadley responds to that charge and stumbles onto Albright’s $94 travel voucher issued for a meeting in Las Vegas that Albright failed to attend. The voucher incident was actual, admitted to by Fairchild as an error, creating a mini-scandal that was pursued to absurdity by the mayor.
Stevens also portrayed the real-life power struggle between Holecheck and then-Mesquite Local News editor Morris Workman that many in Mesquite will long remember. Workman, portrayed as Herman Boatright, was very critical of Holecheck’s attempts to manipulate city council members and city staff during the election campaign which infuriated Holecheck’s main political advisor and supporter, portrayed as Roger Cornett.
Enter character Lori Hansen, best friend and ally of beleaguered Albright throughout the controversy played by Jill Melanie Wirth. Stevens adeptly compiled personalities from several city councilmen into council characters, Mark Swift and Cliff Buckner.
Parodying a real event, character Hansen verbally attacked Hadley when the mayor shut down the 2010 door-to-door Boy Scout food drives. Hansen responded to the shut-down by sneaking a box of crackers into a council meeting, shouting “the box of crackers doesn’t have any explosives in it, but my comments do!”
Stevens emphasized the main plot line as a struggle between political foes that went terribly wrong. Supporting that he was able to show how minor disagreements, everyone’s desire to win and an overwhelming need to find someone else to blame can end with everyone losing.
Stevens dark comedy plot interspersed humorous fictitious scenes into the story. In a farcical scene, the mayor’s ex-husband was arrested for publicly urinating as he walked home from a bar late one night. He defended himself, suggesting the mayor build a restroom along the route so it wouldn’t happen again.
The stage backdrop was an actual street map of Mesquite with popular places like Wedgies Sports Bar, Peggy Sue’s diner, city hall, and the Mesquite Local News office highlighted.
Stevens also showed the destructive nature of unmonitored and, at times, anonymous comments posted to online news articles at the Mesquite Local News. Several times during the play, the actors all donned white faceless masks to portray the dangerous anonymity. It was perfect. The storyline referred to the comments as “unmoderated tar pits and at the bottom are Anna’s (Donna’s) bones.”
Mayor Hadley’s weaseling political advisor Cornett, played by Jeff Paul, entered the fray by calling Albright the day before her death. The scene was based on the original history of the time. While the contents of the real phone call were never revealed, Stevens depicted it as part of Albright’s meltdown. The play also accurately reflected that Albright had been reading the online comments just hours before her death. A sorrowful email of apology from Albright to Hansen was also taken from actual fact in the ensuing police investigation.
It was extremely emotional to watch how Stevens depicted Fairchild’s death when she killed her husband and then herself. One actor used a time countdown, “midnight, one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four twenty” – the actual time Fairchild called 911 to report what she was about to do. Fairchild’s character walked behind the stage screen and the audience heard two loud bangs.
That ended Act One.
The second act was all retribution, finger-pointing and finding scapegoats. It was also a lesson in how easy it has become to abandon friends and associates when the heat gets too close and too high.
Boatwright blamed Hadley for Albright’s death. Cornett blamed Boatwright and his newspaper for all the tragedy. Hansen blamed Hadley. Hadley blamed Swift. All of them blamed someone else.
“People already hate me and say it’s my fault,” Boatwright complained.
“What happened to this town,” Hansen lamented. “Anna didn’t hurt anyone.”
“We did some good things for this city like the sign ordinance, the freeway exit, and the library park,” Hadley bemoaned as she was losing the election.
“The city needs a scapegoat,” Cornett implored. “Let’s make it Mark.”
All of them accused the others of having “blood on their hands.”
While just as in real life there was never an answer to Fairchild’s murder/suicide, there wasn’t one in the play. Just a lot of lingering questions about how “people can’t abide a lack of outrage nowadays,” as Stevens put it.
Stevens and the play’s director Thomas Cote’ are veterans of the New York downtown theater community. All of the actors are also well-experienced in off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theater productions. In a group interview after the play, some of the actors said they had done extensive research into the election and the real-life characters. Others said they went strictly off the script and at Cote’s direction.
The play ‘Mesquite, NV’ could have been about any small town or large city. But in the end, it will always be about the people.