Rick Cleveland’s fictionalized docudrama, which is generously laced with comic zingers and one-liners that lighten the subject, imagines a 90-minute get-together between past presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the current “Leader of the Free World”, Bill Clinton.
The year is 1994 and the setting is a gathering room in the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA, tastefully designed by Grant Sabin and nicely lit by Alexander Ridgers.
The occasion for this meeting is the funeral of President Richard Nixon. Even though these five men would’ve greeted each other on this occasion, it’s unlikely that they spent an hour and a half talking together about so many different topics.
For most of the play, the five living members of this exclusive club banter about each other’s faults and failings and recite the various foreign and domestic policies that each President passed while in office.
The one plot point that runs throughout the play is that President Ford has decided he no longer wants to deliver his portion of Nixon’s eulogy but the other four try to convince him otherwise.
President Regan keeps offering to come to the rescue by volunteering to speak extemporaneously. However, the other men are aware that Reagan is in the onset of Alzheimer’s and understand how disastrous his eulogy might be.
What keeps this play from feeling like a schoolroom social studies lecture is the sincere humanity Cleveland has injected into his script. Each of the five Presidents are seen as real human beings who, despite their dedication to their country, are living, breathing, flesh-and-blood people with personal concerns and feelings.
Director and ensemble member Marty Higginbotham has done a great job of guiding these five talented actors. He’s encouraged his cast to tap into what makes each of these Presidents unique, although Higginbotham is careful not to let his actors drift into that shaky realm of impersonation.
Wearing his recognizable glasses, John Carter Brown has mastered the look and the halting speech of George H.W. Bush. James Leaming wears his darkened hair tightly lacquered and carries himself with Ronald Reagan’s identifiable broad-shouldered stance. The actor achieves the late President’s painted-on smile and staccato vocal quality, as well.
Stephen Spencer is perfect as Bill Clinton, the new kid on the block. As the recently-elected President when Nixon passed away, Spencer charms with his amiability and uses his high voice, modest, Arkansas drawl and big, toothy, good-ol’-boy grin to win over the others in the room.
Bush makes a few humorous comments about his son, George W’s, lack of skill; and Reagan has a senior moment, recalling a recent phone conversation with a Hollywood exec, who passed away long ago, and is trying to lure him back into films.
Martin L’Herault brings a smooth, subtle, Southern gentlemanly quality to his fine portrayal of Jimmy Carter. Gerald Ford is skillfully played with sass and spirit by Tom McElroy. The former President is still worrying about how pardoning Nixon has made him look and how history will ultimately judge him. He and Carter have forged a close friendship and we see that relationship throughout this play.
Denzel Tsopnang plays Agent Kirby, a thoroughly professional young man, who knows his job perfectly and understands just how far he can go in expressing his opinion. Tsopnang plays his role with a quiet dignity that gives resonance to his cameo moment about predicting the reality of America electing a woman or an African-American President.
This is a play that offers very few surprises. Although the 90 minute meeting depicted is fictional, it is true that the information covered is from public record and took place at other times.
However, knowing the path that these five men took after Nixon’s funeral is interesting in retrospect. Some of the quips, like statements about Clinton cheating at golf, not in his marriage, generate a laugh.
But creating this brief, somewhat fictionalized moment in the lives of these Presidents, all of whom once held the highest office in the land, provides an honest, humane portrait of what it takes to make a great leader.
DETAILS: “Five :Presidents” is at American Blues Theater, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, through Oct. 19, 2019. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. For tickets and other information call (773) 654-3103 or visit American Blues Theater.
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