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The Role of First Ladies Explored on the Big Stage

Arena Stage’s fictional first lady is Obama, Bush and Clinton rolled into one

Drew Gehling, left, plays President Bill Mitchell, and Mamie Parris plays first lady Ellen Mitchell in “Dave,” which runs from July 13 to Aug. 19 at Arena Stage. (Tony Powell)
Drew Gehling, left, plays President Bill Mitchell, and Mamie Parris plays first lady Ellen Mitchell in “Dave,” which runs from July 13 to Aug. 19 at Arena Stage. (Tony Powell)

While Melania Trump’s role in the White House is being picked apart, actress Mamie Parris is studying the first lady’s place in history.

The musical “Dave” makes its world premiere at D.C.’s Arena Stage next month. The comedy, about a high school teacher and presidential look-alike the Secret Service hires to stand in for the ill president, is an adaptation of the 1993 film of the same name that starred Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.

Parris plays first lady Ellen, whom Dave falls for when he becomes President Bill Mitchell. Parris describes him as a “modern-day president but without the current political situation.”

“I don’t know that [Ellen’s] like any first lady in particular,” she said. “She is a first lady and she’s in this very unique situation. She is still a woman with thoughts, with ideals.”

Her character runs a nonprofit and has two doctorates.

“I think she’s a very successful career woman,” Parris said. “I don’t think she’s as politically ambitious as a Hillary Clinton. She’s her own woman. She’s a different animal. She’s ambitious in her own way.”

Parris has been researching previous president’s wives and sees parallels to all the recent ones, aside from Trump.

“Because it is a story set in the present, she skewed closer to more modern first ladies, especially… Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton,” Parris said.

But she also finds some Laura Bush in her character because she has a “cold exterior that underneath hides a very warm, almost maternal, loving person.”

First ladies are often judged by their relationships with their husbands, an aspect of the role that Parris has found hard to analyze.

“I don’t know that even in my research that I’ve come close enough to understanding a presidential and a first lady relationship that intimately,” Parris said.

She said that while her character is focused on pushing for her own agenda as first lady, there are some romantic behind-the-scenes moments with the president. Those moments reminded her of the Obamas when she read descriptions of their domestic life in “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House” by Kate Andersen Brower.

Parris has been reading up on the education and entrepreneurial ventures of past presidents’ wives, but “the role is constantly changing,” she said.

While she has always been interested in politics, Parris says the play isn’t a commentary on the current state of affairs.

“Our writers have created a world that’s so alternate to what exists in reality right now … that it’s easy to step away from my views and opinions on what’s going on,” she said.

She is making her Arena Stage debut in “Dave” and most recently was in “Cats” on Broadway.

“Dave” runs from July 13 to Aug. 19.

Watch: Reindeer Sausage, Cocaine With Your Spouse and Throwing the Softball Game: Congressional Hits and Misses

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