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Eric Coates in Daisy by Sean Devine. Photo: Andrew Alexander.

Review: Daisy returns to GCTC after a pandemic-induced hiatus

By Bruce Burwell on December 6, 2021



The night in March 2020 when the world went into COVID-19 lockdown, I was supposed to be seeing a play. I assumed that it would get delayed a week or two, and then reopen when the pesky virus was under control. I was very wrong. The same thing happened with Sean Devine’s play Daisy that same weekend. After a couple of preview performances, the doors of the GCTC were shuttered — until now. So it’s great to see that they are picking up exactly where they left off with the Canadian premiere of this play.

Daisy is the story of a TV ad that ran during the American presidential election of 1964. The Democrat incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, was squaring off against Republican Barry Goldwater. The Daisy ad shows a little girl plucking daisy petals and counting them as she does. An ominous male voice goes into a launch countdown and a mushroom cloud fills the screen. The announcer tells us to vote for Johnson since “the stakes are too high for you to stay home.” The ad was based on Goldwater’s advocating the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The ad only aired once, but was discussed endlessly on TV and radio during the campaign — the 1960s equivalent of going viral.

Marion Day, Andrew Moodie, Geoff McBride, Eric Coates, Brad Long, and Paul Rainville in Daisy by Sean Devine. Photo: Andrew Alexander.

Fifty-plus years later, the ad looks pretty tame. It took Goldwater’s acknowledged position and played on the public’s fears of nuclear armageddon. Most political ads at the time just amplified a political candidate’s policies and qualifications.

The story plays out over the 1964 election year. The ad agency wins the contract to do the TV commercials in the spring, but they don’t yet know who the Republican candidate will be. Initially, they focus on the supposed favourite, Nelson Rockefeller. When he drops out, they are left with an easier target, the hawkish Goldwater.

Marion Day and Paul Rainville in Daisy by Sean Devine. Photo: Andrew Alexander

There is internal tension in the ad team about how far to go in attacking Goldwater. Is it OK to play on people’s fears of nuclear annihilation? Is it OK to show a little girl being blown up? There is another subplot about the credit being “stolen” for the ad idea — which feels a little unnecessary to the overall narrative.

The five actors in the play are all veterans, and most are familiar faces on the Ottawa theatre scene. The ones that really stood out for me were Eric Coates and Geoff McBride. McBride plays the neurotic Aaron Erlich and is the comic relief in an otherwise tense show. Coates (who also directs) plays Tony Schwartz, a legendary political ad consultant. The real-life Schwartz was severely agoraphobic and Coates plays him as a quirky but very believable character.

Marion Day, Brad Long, Eric Coates and Geoff McBride in Daisy by Sean Devine. Photo: Andrew Alexander.

The set (along with the lighting and sound) is another star of the show. At the back of the set is a mosaic of screens on which black-and-white videos and stills are displayed to give a period feel. The screens are also used to show pivotal political speeches as well as the original Daisy ad at the end of the first half. Apparently, the whole set has been sitting gathering dust since the show was shut down 20 months ago.

In the second half of the show, it’s obvious that the ad has done its job because Johnson wins in a landslide. The ad agency receives acclaim and wins awards for its commercials. But the audience knows that there has been a shift in the landscape and that political advertising will never be quite the same again.

Daisy plays at the GCTC till December 17. The theatre’s COVID protocols include operating at only 50 percent capacity and some shows are already sold out.