‘FIVE PRESIDENTS’ – A Legacy of Leadership
The last time the American political system had a Republican incumbent beaten by a Democrat was in 1992. President George H.W. Bush, fresh off soaring ratings in the spring from his handling of Desert Storm and, he thought, coasting to a second term, was side-winded by Ross Perot, whose competing run split the vote and elected Bill Clinton to the presidency. (As I recall, the economy tanked in the fall run-up to the election, which didn’t help.) President Gerald Ford's legacy, hovering eternally in the shadow of his pardon of President Richard Nixon, cleared a path for President Jimmy Carter. Carter’s handling of the Iran hostage crisis helped pave the way for the Ronald Reagan/Bush years and led to the first time either party held the office for three consecutive terms since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Rick Cleveland weaves these facts and more into his engrossing play “Five Presidents,” American Blues Theater’s Chicago premiere production, directed with pinpoint accuracy by Marty Higginbotham and now playing at Stage 773.
There's a long line of famous presidential impersonators past and present–David Frye, Rich Little, Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, Jim Morris and Alec Baldwin immediately come to mind–whose spot-on characterizations serve the dual purpose of pure enjoyment and political satire. If you expect to cross over the fine line into this area in Cleveland’s work, you will instead discover a thoughtful, nuanced and satisfying depiction of the members of a very select club.
The skillful interpretations of the esteemed actors who bring the work to life in 90 minutes–Tom McElroy (Ford), Martin L’Herault (Carter), James Leaming (Reagan), John Carter Brown (Bush), Stephen Spencer (Clinton) – create an astonishingly present atmosphere of what it might have been like for the men to delve into administrative policy, successes and failures, and global ideology, as well as to commiserate with each other on the profound responsibilities that go with the job. They are all held to a timetable–and are in no small part accountable for the consequences of their actions–by Denzel Tsopnang (Agent Kirby).
A sixth president appears–figuratively–in the room: the official portrait of Nixon, for whom the group gathered on April 27, 1994, for a memorial service at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California–a finely appointed on-stage meeting space designed by Grant Sabin with lighting by Alexander Ridgers and costumes by Michael Alan Stein.
How Nixon’s presidency defined everything that followed and the skillful depiction of Reagan’s declining health add a unique perspective to the work, which is at times both deeply moving and insightful. For those of us who lived through it all, the lines of intersection between administrations resonate starkly. For everyone else, it will be impossible to walk away from “Five Presidents” without both a greater understanding of the challenges that come with the high office and the enormous responsibility for each of us to be informed and active participants in the political process that put those men in power.
AMERICAN BLUES THEATER
through October 19th
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