Arena Stage presents ‘Change Agent’ about American woman who influenced Cold War

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Change Agent' at Arena Stage (Part 1)

The Cold War, Cuban missile crisis and Civil Rights Movement come to Arena Stage: It’s all tackled in the world premiere play “Change Agent,” running now through March 6.

“This is a D.C. story,” Artistic Director Molly Smith told WTOP. “It’s about the high stakes of power and politics … it’s really a thrill ride that focuses on one woman who was a hidden influencer and how she wielded the levers of power. There are real-life human beings like John Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, then there are other characters hidden from the public.”

Those characters include Georgetown painter Mary Pinchot Meyer (Andrea Abello) and her CIA agent husband Cord Meyer (Jeffrey Omura) as they cross paths with John F. Kennedy (Luis Vega), Jackie Kennedy (Kathryn Tkel) and a woman named Cecily (Regan Linton).

“How does one person affect change in a big, bold way in a country like America?” Smith said. “Her name was Mary Pinchot Meyer and that’s all I’m going to tell you about her. I want people to come experience who she was … (she) believed in peace so much that she was able to convince someone important to have conversations with Khrushchev.”

Along the way, the play dissects the media’s role in the military industrial complex.

“There is quite a bit in this play about media influence on truth and power in the country, as well as the militarization of the United States,” Smith said. “Given what America is in the midst of right now in terms of Russia, there’s a real historical sense of what happened before and what’s happening now … (with) Russia possibly invading Ukraine.”

Of course, these tensions all date back to postwar insecurities from World War II.

“The characters in this (were) young men who went to war during World War II and what they brought out of that experience,” Smith said. “They moved into different areas of American government, so their fears, their hopes, their dreams are all laid out for us. There are characters who dovetail with JFK both before and after he became president.”

It’s all written and by Craig Lucas, who earned Tony nominations for the books of “Prelude to a Kiss” (1991), “An American in Paris” (2015) and “The Light in the Piazza” (2005).

“He is one of the fiercest writers working in American theater today,” Smith said.” Four years ago, I started talking to Craig about writing a Power Play. One of the decades left for a writer to write about was the 1960s. He almost immediately focused on that. He grew up in the ’60s, so it was an important time period for him and he has a lot to say about it.”

Lucas worked with Arena’s creative team to bring it to life in the Kogod Cradle.

“Wilson Chin, the set designer, has created a space that is timeless,” Smith said. “There are a lot of projections as well by Caite Hevner that are just exquisite. Alejo Vietti is the costumer designer, people remember his costumes from projects like ‘Anything Goes’ … there’s a sensuality and sexuality to the clothes that are just a gorgeous flow on stage.”

In the end, the biggest reward is watching the audience reaction.

“It’s been fascinating in the previews,” Smith said. “Any time we do a new play about Washington D.C., the audience leans in like crazy. They parse all the language. Talking to people afterward, they say, ‘God, I can’t wait to get home and look up all of these events and people to find out more.’ I love that about D.C. It’s such an educated audience.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Change Agent' at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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