Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Stage Left Productions' cast has three actresses who beautifully and elegantly portray these three famous women with direction that is clear and expressive. With the three actresses each delivering a monologue, it makes for a wonderful, and safe, socially distanced theatre outing for both the cast and the audience, and a great production of a play that gives the audience a better understanding of what these three powerful, smart women were like and the many obstacles they faced as first lady.
The play was originally conceived as a one-woman show for Elaine Bromka, who co-wrote the piece with Eric H. Weinberger and who performed it Off-Broadway and across the country. The premise is fairly straightforward: we witness an intimate, solo conversation from three famous first ladies as each prepares for the transition of another woman that will take her place. All three women are depicted as strong and independent. We hear some of their private thoughts and get a clearer understanding of their relationships with their husbands as well as the historical events that shaped them, and how their presence in this powerful position helped shape the current and future status of the country. As each woman reminisces about her past, as well as the difficulties their husbands' face as president, we get glimpses of the former personal lives and the pressing public struggles of all three presidents through the eyes of their wives.
Cody Dull's direction is crisp and refined, and all three actresses appear to have done their research to ensure their portrayals are accurate. (Dull's costume design and Lisa Kurvink's wigs are period perfect and help with the transformations.) The three first ladies were vastly different from each other, and that comes across in the performances. While we see the strength and uncertainties in each woman, we also get a firm sense of the loss all three are feeling as they realize their time as first lady is coming to an end.
Lady Bird Johnson was from a small Texas town, and Cindy Covington brings a vast amount of Southern charm and vitality to the role that allows us to understand the joy and happiness that being first lady can instill. Lady Bird talks about her hasty marriage and unromantic courtship but also claims that her husband has given her "the greatest adventure imaginable." Covington is exceptional in showing us the pleasure that can come from serving as first lady and she also brings precise clarity in her depiction of how Lady Bird vividly remembers the details of when President Kennedy was assassinated. That section, which includes Lady Bird recalling how Jackie Kennedy was still wearing her bloodstained Chanel suit hours after the incident when Johnson was being inaugurated, saying she wanted people to see what they did to her husband, and how she is haunted not by President Kennedy but by Jackie Kennedy's shadow in the White House, brings an eeriness to the production due to Covington's wonderful performance.
Debra Lyman's firm steeliness and quiet pauses in role of Pat Nixon clearly get across the loneliness and isolation this woman felt at the time the play depicts, when the Watergate investigation was at the forefront of the news. However, through her strong performance, we also see a glimpse of the happier times in her life as she reminisces about how Richard used to dance with her and about the vast number of trips she made as first lady, having never traveled anywhere when she was growing up. With Watergate looming large, Pat still feels it is her duty to personally answer hundreds of letters a day as she "wants people to know that she's here and she's listening," but she also says that politics is an ugly business and I loathe it. Of the three first ladies presented in the play, Pat Nixon seemed to have the most detriments to deal with and, from Lyman's excellent performance, we truly understand the sacrifices Pat Nixon made.
As Betty Ford, Kandyce Hughes beautifully exhibits a vivacious sense of life as the self-proclaimed "party girl" who likes to drink and pop prescription pills to help ease the pain of a pinched nerve in her neck, while also easing her tensions. But we also see the strong woman who found a calling due to her personal experience with breast cancer and her frank talk about it, which resulted in thousands of women getting tested, and her support of the Equal Rights Amendment. While she worries she may have hurt her husband politically due to her strong views, she hopes she's been able to make a difference. From Hughes' firm portrayal we clearly see this is a woman who isn't going to just stand next to the president and be quiet: You can't shut this one up!
Whether you're a political junkie or someone who doesn't know much about these women, the complex, layered performances and smart direction should have you finding Tea for Three at Stage Left Productions to be a fascinating behind the scenes look into life inside the White House and of three independent, courageous, and vastly different women.
Stage Left Productions' safety measures include socially distanced seating, masks required by all audience members and theatre staff, and a heightened cleaning process before, during and after each performance.
Tea For Three Lady Bird, Pat & Betty runs through February 28, 2021, at Stage Left Productions, 11340 West Bell Road, Suite 105, Surprise AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.stageleftaz.com or by calling 623 285-6321.
Director: Cody Dull
Cast: Lady Bird Johnson: Cindy Covington