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A new play premiering at the 6th annual Source Festival shines the spotlight on a secret that, more than 60 years ago, was a reality for many people in Washington, D.C., and around the country.
Perfect Arrangement takes place in Georgetown. The year is 1950. McCarthyism is creeping its way through the government, and the U.S. Department of State has begun purging suspected homosexuals — or "deviants," as they're called — from the department's ranks. The belief is that the so-called "questionable morals" of these individuals might make them more susceptible to communism.
One of the main characters, Norma, is a State Department staffer who's entered the supposedly "perfect arrangement" of the play's title. Norma is married to Jim Baxter, a plucky young high-school teacher. And next door are the Martindales: Millie, a fastidious homemaker, and Bob, Norma's boss at the State Department.
But the whole thing, it turns out, is a lie. Norma and Millie are actually lovers, as are Jim and Bob.
The play's director, Linda Lombardi, says she first "fell in love with [the play] when I read the stage direction that they come and go to each other's apartments through a closet. I was like, 'Okay! I'm in!'"
Something else that attracted her to the play was its politics: "the time period of 1950 and McCarthyism and the whole time period and the whole persecution of 'the other,'" she says. "And then there's the humanity of these characters and in their real relationships they are grounded. In their pretend relationships they are mayhem and insanity. And it's just a really beautiful amount of insanity!"
Not to mention a beautiful amount of show-ponying as a pair of aw-shucks-golly-gee-all-American couples.
Andrew Keller, who plays Bob Martindale, says he thinks "it's really interesting seeing how they're very different from the society, but also how the society still has its claws in them."
And not only that, says Natalie Cutcher, who plays Norma, but playwright Topher Payne has done an excellent job of making these characters' issues resonate with anyone.
"Something that Topher said when we met him was that the play focuses on the moment right before these characters really take ownership of themselves," Cutcher says. "And that is something that every single person goes through, whether you're gay, whether you're straight, whether you're yadda yadda yadda."
At one point in the play, Norma and Millie are talking privately, and Norma expresses her growing frustration with their perfect arrangement:
NORMA: I don't know how much longer this can last.
MILLIE: The arrangement gives us a lot of freedom that other people don't have. I love our life.
NORMA: When we're home. Alone. When we're home alone I love our life. When we're out getting manicures with Kitty Sunderson and gossiping about our husbands, I am frankly underwhelmed by my existence.
MILLIE: Everyone puts on a public face, Norma. People are entitled to private lives.
NORMA: Yeah: Private lives, not secret.
As for that delineation between "private" and "secret," Linda Lombardi says many same-sex couples today often feel pressured to opt for the latter.
"I mean, we're wrapped up in marriage equality right now," she says. "And the fact that we're still at a place where someone else thinks they have the right to question and decide who should be able to get married."
Government statistics show that 54 State Department workers were fired for suspected homosexuality in 1950, 119 in 1951, and 134 in 1952. The number of dismissals for more straightforward security concerns during the same years barely even compare: 12, 35 and 70, respectively.
Department officials promised they would only investigate people suspected of homosexuality after developing a strong case against them. But we now know many findings were based on highly subjective information - like how a person spoke, behaved, or just plain looked.
As one veteran courier recalled, during the McCarthy Era, "everyone was presumed to be a little light on his feet until proved otherwise."
Perfect Arrangement is one of two-dozen theatrical events in this year's Source Festival, which runs from June 7 to 30 at Source, in northwest D.C.
[Music: "Do You Want To Know a Secret?" by Count Basie from Basie's Beatles Bag]