American Blues Theater is currently presenting Five Presidents by veteran “politics as showbiz” playwright/screenwriter Rick Cleveland, author of Netflix series The West Wing and House of Cards, through October 19, 2019 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
This revised version of the original Five Presidents is directed by Ensemble member Marty Higginbotham and stars John Carter Brown as George H.W. Bush, James Leaming as Ronald Reagan, Martin L’Herrault as Jimmy Carter, Tom McElroy as Gerald Ford, Stephen Spencer as Bill Clinton and Denzel Tsopnang as Agent Kirby.
The occasion for the get-together of four former and one current American President is the funeral of another of their all-too-exclusive club. It is 1994, Richard Nixon has departed the earth, and the five men, improbably minus their wives, are together in the Executive Board Room at the Richard Nixon Presidential Museum and Library prior to the ceremonies. Agent Kirby, who is black, acts as a timekeeper and their conscience, coming into and out of the room, commenting on his imminent enrollment in law school, answering an insensitive question put to him about the likelihood of a future black President, and updating them all on a possible replacement speaker; Ford has decided he cannot go ahead with his programmed eulogy.
The play is well written, clever and humorous. The elephant in the room is a very large photo of Nixon, whose eyes seem to follow everyone about, even as the characters tartly sum up his misdeeds. The real focus of their discourse is twofold: the regrets they have and recriminations they direct against their predecessors/successors; and the acknowledged humanity and support they are willing to grant each other.
The most intriguing aspect of the production is the choice of actors, and especially in the case of Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, how well they captured the physical/vocal personae of their respective roles. In an interesting deviation from traditional portrayals of these men, Gerald Ford is presented as the most thoughtful- and rueful- of them all, determined to explain that his pardon of Nixon should NOT be construed as absolving him; Nixon had to accept guilt before being so pardoned.
The play is funniest when the various men deliver nasty little snide remarks while the cornball, too-often repeated jokes sometimes fall flat, and the self-righteous pronouncements about body counts and sleepless nights can be cloying. However, there is a very real and touching sense of shared humanity in the support they give Reagan, whose self-admitted memory loss so obviously tortures him. A strong vein of decent kindness shines forth in the chamber as the men seek to prevent Reagan from substituting his eulogy for Fords and also reassure him.
At 85 brisk and tightly directed minutes, Five Presidents gives us a number of astute observations on Nixon’s impact on American’s views of their leaders, on how media shapes message, on a modern historical basis for impeachment and the resignation of a President, and on how this exclusive club calls upon its members to act as ambassadors for each other around the world.
Kudos to the production team including Grant Sabin, scenic designer, for an upscale believable California-esque set; Michael Alan Stein, costume designer, for effortlessly sharp business suits; and Warren Levon for well-blended sound design.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.