Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant
Old Log Theatre has mounted a thoroughly winning production of Five Presidents, Rick Cleveland's play that speculates on what might have been said among these former commanders-in-chief on this occasion. Holed up in a conference room at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California, as they await the ceremonial procession that will be part of the funeral service, they exchange pleasant inquiries about family and personal pursuitsfor Ford, golf, for Carter, international relief mission workalong with the challenges and privileges inherent in being what they refer to, more than once, as the "most exclusive club in the world."
Cleveland is primarily known as a television writer, an Emmy winner for his work on the politically trenchant "The West Wing" and contributing to such successful series as "Six Feet Under," "Nurse Jackie," "Mad Men," and "House of Cards," another series steeped in politics. As Five Presidents was first staged in March 2015 (a commission by the Milwaukee Repertory Company), it affords Cleveland the benefit of hindsight to insert coy foreshadowing into the script, with references to Clinton's ambitious wife and Bush's hope that "Junior" is getting his act together and will follow in the footsteps of his more responsible brother Jeb. Attention is given to Reagan's encroaching dementia, eroding his ability to live up to the sobriquet he had earned as "the Great Communicator." With Clinton being the last to arrive, the others all speculate on how the "new kid," whom they also refer to as 42 but never by his name, will make out facing demands they each know all too well.
In spite of their aim to be affable, disputes among these five are expressed, sometimes bitterly, over both policy and politics. It is clear that there is anger among them that will never be totally abated. Yet, there is also a brotherhood, a sense that each recognizes that in spite of political machinations taken against them, in spite of being saddled by problems created by their predecessor, they are honor-bound to the dignity and immense power of the office of the president, and at the end of the day, place that ahead of personal accolades and partisanship. In 2015, Cleveland could not have known that less than a year later, the sanctity of that office would be put into great jeopardy by the man voted into the Oval Office, a president unlike any other who has come before him. At the same time, social media has greatly reduced the presidency's seclusion from the public eyes and ears, making it more difficult for any leader to reserve their private thoughts and ambitions for the members of their exclusive club. The opportunity for Cleveland to write a sequel that incorporates both Barack Obama and Donald Trump into the club is intriguing, to say the least.
While there is nary anything resembling a narrative arc in this 85 minute playwalking in, we know that nothing about the status of these five men will be different at the close of the playCleveland has crafted smart dialogue that captures the spirit of each of these five men, and has done his research in terms of unearthing open sores among them. Five Presidents passes quickly, providing some insights into each man, his presidency, and his place in the greater pageant of America's story, while also showing each to be fully human, with flaws and regrets easily spotted. That any humanman, woman, or gender-fluidcould rise up to shoulder the burden of the position of President of the United States becomes an astonishing act in itself, building an understanding of the inevitability of each of them falling short.
Martin L'Herault has directed Five Presidents with a sense of panache, giving in to the larger-than-life quality of each of these men, and allowing for the awkward moments that greet each new arrival to the room as conversation stalls and then shifts to include their presence. The moments of heated angerwhich come close to physicalare made totally believable, as are the moments of concession from individual positions to what serves the greater good. He sifts humility from the pride and ego that stoke these past and current presidents, making it a means of lifting leadership from power only to a form of nobility. There are four available chairs in the room so that once all five presidents are in the room, at any one time at least one of them must be standing, which provides for movement and rearrangement of the men among themselves and keeps the talky play from ever feeling static.
L'Herault also acts the role of Jimmy Carter, capturing Carter's crisp fundamentalist mannerisms as well as his gentlemanly conduct, but also his tenacity at holding tightly to principles that guided his presidency and guide him still (starting August 14, Pat O'Brien replaces L'Herault as Carter). James Ramlet portrays Gerald Ford. He is first to enter the room, taking great interest in the fully stocked bar available to him and his fellow club members. Ramlet convincingly conveys Ford's ambivalence about being presidentthe only man ever to hold the office without ever running for itand the frustration of being known only as the president who pardoned Nixon, and the false assumption made by most of the public that he had cut a deal to promise a pardon in exchange for the presidency.
As Ronald Reagan, Steve Sheridan makes the strongest impression among the all-around excellent cast, starting out with the scent of his Hollywood roots, a glib, well-oiled politician straight from central casting, but holding his own under attack, then slowly revealing his losing battle with dementia. Casey E. Lewis is a stalwart George H. W. Bush, still angry 18 months after losing his re-election bid, his pride caught between his legendary predecessor and upstart young replacement. William Gilness gives a fully credible portrayal of Bill Clinton as a the newest "inductee" to the club, unsteady on his feet at first, but gradually loosening up, revealing a naivete about appropriate behavior (e.g., his unchecked interest in sex) that undermines his efforts to be seen as an equal among these esteemed peers. Konrad Case is effective in a small role as the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the five presidents.
Eric Paulson has designed a set that easily passes for any of the scores of such conference rooms I have spent time in, complete with push-bar operated double doors, wall sconces, and blue tableclothed tables with matching padded stackable chairs. A large picture window overlooks the gracious grounds of the Nixon library. Special credit goes to Paul Bigot, whose on-cue hair designs reinforce the identity of each of these well-known visages. Likewise, dialect coach Foster John's summons up each of these presidents' vocal patters, differentiating Carter's rural Georgia drawl from Clinton's Arkansas variation, Bush's mash of New England and Texas, Reagan's smooth diction by way of Hollywood, and Ford's straight, declarative speech from the upper Midwest Rust Belt.
Any member of the audience attending Five Presidents will hold some of these five men in higher esteem than others, and Cleveland makes no attempt to direct us either way. The point of the play is not to measure their individual successes and failures, but to create a tapestry by which those wins and losses are interwoven to form the fabric that becomes the American story. We are given a window into how they might feel about one another, and how they placed their work within the context of each who preceded themspeculation on the playwright's part to be sure, but informed by the facts, as we know them, and by insights into the political process.
Five Presidents is a surprisingly apt selection for summer programming, especially in this season of aspiring presidential candidate debates. It is a thoughtful reminder of our recent past, and a suggestion of a future to which we might aspire. It is also highly entertaining, in a production by Old Log that scores on all counts. I cast a resounding "yes" vote for Five Presidents.
Five Presidents, through October 5, 2019, at Old Log Theatre, 5185 Meadville Street, Excelsior MN. Tickets are $30.00 - $40.00, Student rush tickets evening of performance, in person, $20.00 with valid ID. Wednesday 1:30 p.m. matinees are general admission. For tickets call 952-474-5951 or visit www.oldlog.com.
Playwright: Rick Cleveland; Director: Martin L'Herault; Scenic and Lighting Designer: Erik Paulson; Costume and Props Design: Eric Morris; Sound Designer: Nick Mrozek; Hair and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot: Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith.
Cast: Konrad Case (Special Agent Michael Kirby), William Gilness (Bill Clinton), Martin L'Herault (Jimmy Carter - through August 11), Casey E. Lewis (George H. W. Bush), Pat O'Brien (Jimmy Carter - August 14 - closing), James Ramlet (Gerald R. Ford), Steve Sheridan (Ronald Reagan).