After a delayed opening, prompted by the death of a close family member of one of the cast, "Five Presidents" officially opened last weekend at Arizona Theatre Company. Actually the show had been running with a substitute on book, but after several days of finding and breaking in a new actor, ATC decided the show was more appropriately ready to be reviewed.
It is indeed ready.
It's a terrific little piece, a brand new play, actually, commissioned by the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, which is co-producer of the show on stage here which will continue ATC's regular run in Phoenix and then take up residency in Milwaukee. Playwright Rick Cleveland, a TV writer ("Six Feet Under, "Nurse Jackie") who won an Emmy for "The West Wing," has crafted a play that, although slight on conflict, is pretty much properly balanced in all other aspects.
Cleveland takes the setting of Richard Nixon's funeral in Yorba Linda, California, in 1994, to bring four former presidents together, as well as the new guy in the oval office, to wait in Nixon's Library while things are readied for the actual ceremony. (Although all wives were present at the funeral, they are not included in Cleveland's convention.)
We first meet Gerald Ford (Jeff Steitzer), who, along with Jimmy Carter (Martin L'Herault) anchor the gathering. It's an interesting choice by Cleveland. They are probably the least celebrated of the group as actual commanders in-chief. Ford, as he so succinctly puts it, will always be remembered as the guy who "pardoned Tricky Dick," and as the poor schlub who couldn't actually get elected to the position once he filled out Nixon's term.
But Ford was a practiced politician, whereas we think of Carter as less so—demonstrated by his tumultuous four years in office, especially his acrimonious relationship with Washington professionals—and associate him with humanitarian work post-presidency.
They converse. Ford desperately wants a drink but can't have one because, as he notes, his wife's name is on a chain of rehab facilities. He offers Carter a drink; Carter chooses scotch and Ford pours him about ten ounces worth. Ford, it turns out, is quite the sardonically witty guy (who knew?), and Carter is genuinely personable. Their interactions ground the play, setting the tone for what follows.
The conflict, if indeed there is one, involves Ford's decision not to deliver his contribution to the elegiac comments, which the others, who have no such task, want nothing to do with it. Except Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan), of course. He's willing. But Nancy has warned President George H. W. Bush (Mark Jacoby) not to allow any such thing to happen, because, as we know, and are actually here sadly witness to, Reagan is losing his mind.
They are aware they occupy a special place in history and are genuinely respectful of that fact, although youngster Bill Clinton (Brit Whittle) seems a little out of his league with these senior statesmen. He brings a fresh, rather upbeat perspective; he has not yet been sullied by the demands of the job as well as by his own distasteful actions.
Thanks to Cleveland's thorough research—he says he's done enough to write a biography of each of them—and the actors' ability to be these men and not just represent them, we get a quiet but lively sense of who these men of history are. Cleveland has built in enough humor so that we are entertained, and enough mostly understated acrimony that we feel these men are thoroughly human. We feel an empathy for each, no matter our political leanings.
We also get a hint of the history of the period, and for us who have lived through those times, we find ourselves nodding our heads, embracing both these men and ourselves as those who have journeyed together.
Director Mark Clements has done a good job of coordinating all the excellent designers' work and has chosen a non-intrusive effort to replicate the physical appearance of the presidents. But it is obvious that the actors have spent time observing the manner of the leaders preserved on video. We readily recognize the five.
The result is a respectful and genuine account of these men with feet of clay who have worn the mantle of "the most powerful man on earth." It's a skillfully wrought play with just enough depth for us to get a closer look at both the men and the office, and enough of a light touch to provide an entertaining 90 minutes of theater.