Giardina said she hopes "Robert and Ted" gives theatergoers an appreciation for the two senators "with all their flaws." After all the conflict and noise, in the end what most impresses her about both men was "their basic humanity and basic decency," she said.
The play's first act runs from that initial imagined office meeting up through Chappaquiddick. The second act runs from Watergate through the unfolding of the Iraq war, a war Byrd -- often alone in the Senate -- publicly and loudly denounced as the Bush administration sounded the call to arms.
A Rush Limbaugh-style conservative demagogue in the play denounces Byrd's opposition, yet Byrd counters: "You don't know what a conservative is!"
Giardina said her play paints a portrait of true conservatism as represented by a figure like Byrd, a conservatism that has devolved today into the far-right radicalism that now dominates and shapes American political discourse.
"I want what conservatism used to be in this country, which is what I think Byrd represented," she said. "God help us, even Richard Nixon you could say that about. If you take away Watergate and the paranoia he had, he gave us the Clean Water and Clean Air acts."
This is Giardina's first play but, given the current political climate, "it may be the most timely thing I've ever written," she said.
"I'm known as a historical novelist -- not to say those historical novels aren't timely and don't speak to us today, especially my two West Virginia novels. But this one is right out of today's headlines, in terms of the consequences of the political system that we do have.
"We're still living with the fallout of the Iraq war. We're in Afghanistan still. Just this whole extremism, dealing with Rush Limbaugh and FOX News."
Her play is framed by "The Obituary Writer," who is writing obits on both senators' lives and who acts as a kind of Greek Chorus, commenting on events. One scene depicts Byrd and Kennedy listening to a civil rights speech by the great Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, who helped write and pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Open Housing Act of 1968.
Giardina gives The Obituary Writer's line during this scene:
"Can you believe there was a liberal Republican at one point?!"
It might be several years before a fully staged production of "Robert and Ted," featuring professional actors, comes to Charleston, as Giardina seeks a professional company to take and develop it. The full FestivALL reading will be the only chance to experience and offer feedback on the production as it develops, she said.
"This is the only chance for Charleston to see the play for a few years. Plays are a work in progress -- I don't know if people realize that.
"It's always a fine line when talking about a real person and trying to imagine them fictionally. You try to be as faithful as you can to the person, but your imagination comes into play, as well. So, I'm interested to get feedback along those lines."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.