Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Five Presidents
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's reviews of The Elephant Wrestler, Footlooseand Lombardi

Mark Jacoby, Martin L'Herault, Brit Whittle, Steve Sheridan and Jeff Steitzer
Emmy winner Rick Cleveland has made a career of writing intense TV dramas centered on politics. His experience as a writer and producer on both "The West Wing" and the current Washington political drama "House of Cards," as well as other hit period shows such as "Mad Men," definitely prepared him to write the superb Five Presidents, now receiving its world premiere at Arizona Theatre Company. This co-production with Milwaukee Repertory, who commissioned the play a few years back, has a crackerjack cast and assured direction that make for an exceptionally entertaining 90 minutes of high powered drama peppered with a fine share of comic moments.

Cleveland sets his play at the 1994 funeral of Richard Nixon and the actual meeting that happened that day between the four living ex-Presidents at that time, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., and Jimmy Carter, and then current president Bill Clinton. They have come together, required as it were by the job they all held, to pay their respects to Nixon. All five find themselves in a secure holding room at the Nixon Library where they must wait until the funeral is ready to begin. As the play progresses, they discuss and debate a wide range of topics, from approval ratings to foreign policy and their shared experiences. There is much talk about Nixon, both pro and con, and while they keep saying they aren't there to talk politics, they do—several times going at each other.

While no one except the five men who were together in that room on that day knows what was actually said, Cleveland has crafted a witty, humorous, emotional, and exceptional piece of drama. Sure, not much happens, since there really isn't a plot like there is in most plays, but none the less it is a rewarding and absorbing 90 minutes.

The cast is outstanding, with each man echoing the idea and presence of each famous president without resorting to full on impressions. While the greying of hair and some facial prosthetics have been incorporated to enhance parts of the men's features to be more similar to the president they are portraying, that is about as far as the resemblance goes. Cleveland captures the cadence, tone and language of each man in his script, and, along with director Mark Clements providing skilled direction, the five men display gestures and movements to bring these famous people to vibrant life.

While the play is mainly an ensemble piece, the role of Ford is at the center, as Cleveland uses the idea of Ford deciding not to deliver Nixon's eulogy as the main plot device and discussion topic throughout the meeting of the five men. Jeff Steitzer is extremely confident and direct in his portrayal of Ford. As the voice of reason of the play, he claims that since he's already pardoned Nixon once, "it's someone else's turn to let him off the hook" as the reason for his decision not to speak at the event. Ford gets a lot of the comic lines and Steitzer has no problem letting the moments land perfectly. Mark Jacoby and Brit Whittle as Bush and Clinton get most of the heated exchanges in the play, with Jacoby expertly portraying the man who is still seething from his loss to Clinton in the last election and Whittle skillfully making Clinton the much younger new kid on the block who doesn't quite know the appropriate way to act around his older predecessors.

Martin L'Herault gives Carter a gentle, quiet demeanor, with Cleveland using him as one of the main keepers of peace in the room; "we try not to kick each other's shins," he tells Clinton after Clinton and Bush have gone at each other. But when Carter and Bush go at it, over Carter writing letters to the heads of the coalition members in his opposition to Bush and Desert Storm, L'Herault has no problem holding his own when the fireworks fly. At this time in his life Ronald Reagan was experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer's and Steve Sheridan does a fine job of showing us the confusion and frustration that Reagan experienced. While there are plenty of heated debates and comical touches, Cleveland also interjects the deep sense of care, respect, and compassion that the men have for each other. This is most expertly shown in Jacoby's portrayal of Bush's guarded treatment of Reagan, obviously knowing more about his confused state of mind than the other men in the room.

Clements' direction allows the play to unfold naturally over real time. His pacing lets the serious moments resonate while the comic ones give an appropriate break in the action. He also stages the play with the five men moving from the various tables and bar in the room in a realistic way. Creative touches are professional yet not too elaborate, with Todd Edward Ivins' set design a faithful representation of a room in the actual Nixon Library, and Mary Folino's costumes crisp dark suits for the men. Lighting designer Jesse Klug provides an appropriate brightness in the room along with some soft filtered lights that come through the outer windows. The simplicity of the creative elements allows the focus of the play to be on the men and their interactions with each other instead of anything busy with the direction, set, costumes or lights.

Rick Cleveland's Five Presidents allows us to be the fly on the wall at a meeting of five of the most important men in the world. With multi-layered and nuanced performances and sure-footed direction combined with Cleveland's excellent dialogue, ATC's production is an eye-opening experience.

Five Presidents at Arizona Theatre Company runs through February 22nd, 2015, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602)256–6995.

Written by Rick Cleveland
Directed by Mark Clements
Scenic Design by Todd Edward Ivins
Costume Design by Mary Folino
Lighting Design by Jesse Klug
Sound Design by Brian Jerome Peterson
Makeup Design by Lauren Wilde

Cast: George H.W. Bush: Mark Jacoby*
Jimmy Carter: Martin L'Herault*
Special Agent Michael Kirby: Reese Madigan*
Ronald Reagan: Steve Sheridan*
Gerald Ford: Jeff Steitzer*
Bill Clinton: Brit Whittle*

*Member Actors Equity Association

Photo: Tim Fuller / Arizona Theatre Company

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix