Review | A satire of Nancy Reagan and astrology, among other things

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At one point in the new play “Nancy,” Ronald Reagan’s wife observes a herb-burning rite officiated by a woman who claims Native American heritage. The celebrant doesn’t just burn sage, that go-to aromatic. Seemingly aiming to broaden the ritual’s appeal, she also ignites what she calls “sacred Anglo-Saxon herbs.” Lavender. Wild rose. And iceberg lettuce.

The salad-charring is just one of the sharp comic moments in “Nancy,” an overstuffed but tangy tale of social justice activism and the 1980s White House by Rhiana Yazzie. A world premiere produced by Mosaic Theater Company in partnership with New Native Theater, “Nancy” gleefully skewers Mrs. Reagan for notorious episodes such as her confabs with an astrologer. But Yazzie, an award-winning playwright who is a Navajo Nation citizen, does more than lampoon: She weaves the satire into broader musings on empowerment, cultural appropriation, responsibility to community, and the possibility of classifying bagels as edible medicine wheels.

Bringing those themes to the fore is protagonist Esmeralda (‘Anaseini Katoa), a Navajo single mother who in the 1980s fights to clean up the toxic aftermath of uranium mining on her reservation. Esmeralda rolls her eyes at news reports that trace Nancy Reagan’s family tree back to Pocahontas. The genealogical rumor also baffles Nancy (Lynn Hawley), but the first lady has limited attention to spare for the matter: She’s busy trying to plot her husband’s national security policy around, say, Saturn being in retrograde.

(The first lady’s relationship with an astrologer — who offered guidance on the president’s schedule that Nancy reportedly urged staff to follow — was revealed by former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan. The theory of her connection to Pocahontas is based on unsourced speculation that Yazzie discovered online.)

Heading for collision, Esmeralda’s and Nancy’s narratives amble through thickets of dramatic incident, comic noodling and focus-usurping exploration of supporting characters, some of whom are historical figures. The first lady meets with Princess Pale Moon (Jen Olivares, playing the real life, public personality who sang the national anthem at Republican national conventions) and feuds with Regan (Derek Garza). “I could smell your blend of Brylcreem and Drakkar Noir coming up the butler’s elevator,” Nancy snarks at the latter.

Meanwhile, Esmeralda bickers with her daughter Jacqueline (Tenley Stitzer), who’s terrified of nuclear war and obsessed with rocker David Lee Roth. Dialogue in both storylines eddies with 1980s references, including to Live Aid, Baby Jessica (rescued from a well), Health and Human Services secretary Margaret M. Heckler, the 1986 U.S. airstrikes against Libya and the 1985 surgery on Ronald Reagan’s colon.

The allusions, and development of minor characters, could stand trimming. Even Nancy’s recurrent chats with astrologer Joan (Regina Aquino) ultimately feel baggy, despite Hawley’s marvelous comic timing and Aquino’s zesty New Age flouncing, respectively.

In other fine acting turns, Garza switches deftly from the chief of staff’s ranting to the gentleness of Whaley, an Ojibwe businessman. And Michael Kevin Darnall, who channels the cadences of the 40th president, is splendidly sleazy as Whaley’s associate Ed.

A hint of stiffness occasionally clings to Katoa’s and Stitzer’s performances, but the actresses do find the pathos in their characters’ insecurities — a throughline of vulnerability that Yazzie has boldly threaded through the play’s satire.

Director Ken-Matt Martin could tighten the pace here and there. But the designers he oversees do justice to story and era. The likenesses of the Reagans that stare out over Misha Kachman’s set add to the mood of political fever dream, while a representation of a Navajo sand painting, suspended over the stage, provides perspective. Hailey LaRoe’s bustling projections (rock-star footage, cascading astrological imagery and more) suit the decade that birthed MTV, and costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka does a smashing job with the first lady’s decorous outfits.

Different as they are, Esmeralda and Nancy are both gutsy strivers grappling with an adversarial world. You can’t control the future, Esmeralda observes to her daughter, “but you can control who you are.”

Nancy, through April 21 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington. About 2 hours, 30 minutes, including an intermission. mosaictheater.org.

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