Theater Review: FIVE PRESIDENTS (American Blues Theater at Stage 773 in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 13, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


It was supposedly the “end of an era,” the memorial service for Richard Nixon in the Nixon Library in his birthplace Yorba Linda, California, on April 27, 1994. And we are there: Five Presidents, a recently revised 2015 drama by Chicago favorite Rick Cleveland, delivers 85 minutes of fascinating “fly on the wall” speculation. We hear what was said in secret by the five presidents, former and current, assembled in set designer Grant Sabin’s elegant holding room for remembrances by the likes of Bob Hope and Red Skelton.

A time capsule confronting and contrasting American commanders-in-chief, it’s an absorbing, if unavoidably unfocused, look at members of a very exclusive club as they review, humbly, arrogantly or defensively, their place in and take on history.

Now in a Chicago premiere at Stage 773 by American Blues Theater cogently staged by Marty Higginbotham, the one-act features a ton of name-dropping amid the in-fighting: It will definitely reward political aficionados familiar with pre-1994 administrations stretching back to 1974.

Introduced by the African-American Secret Service agent (Denzel Tsopnang) wh0’s clearly uncowed by this gathering of greatness, they enter in order of succession. Acting as unofficial bartender, Gerald Ford (Tim McElroy) confesses that he’s the only one not to have wanted to be President (preferring Speaker of the House). The former football player will bitterly recall and resent how Nixon in effect forced him to clean up the mess after the Watergate scandal and Tricky Dick’s resignation.

Ford is still haunted by his controversial pardon of Nixon. Declaring “I never made a deal,” he insists that the clemency was no quid pro quo backroom deal but an attempt to heal the nation while acknowledging the 37th President’s implied guilt. (There’s a sardonic joke about whether Nixon might be covertly taping this meeting of minds for some sort of posthumous payback.)

Ford stirs things up from the start by announcing that he will not deliver a eulogy for Nixon, which will force Henry Kissinger to fill in at the last moment. We never find out why but then Cleveland doesn’t pretend to be a mind-reader.

Affable and altruistic, Jimmy Carter (Martin L’Herault in a remarkable resemblance) shows he’s still angry at the devious resolution of the Iran hostage crisis that played out to the advantage of James Leaming’s doddering Ronald Reagan, a garrulous geezer painfully revealing the advent of Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan in turn keeps it real by telling his illustrious colleagues that they were no less actors than he was in a job that never rewards — and often punishes — complete honesty.

Combative and cranky, George H.W. Bush (John Carter Brown) continues to fester over his loss to the maddeningly upbeat Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton (Stephen Spencer), a womanizer who disgusts the puritanical Texan.

In a reunion as remarkable as the four pop music pioneers in Million Dollar Quartet, the quintet of heads of state thrash out petty and profounder grievances. We hear some necessarily discursive gossip: Reagan’s detestation for the Bonzo chimp he was paired with in his most remembered film; their coping strategies with enemies and even would-be assassins; golfing prowess; and the pressure of living in the limelight with every mistake magnified sometimes beyond repair.

In a telling moment Agent Kirby is asked if he thinks, as the Commanders-in-Chief don’t, that there will ever be an African-American president. His forthright answer is that many more pressing inequalities must be addressed first. The play’s other pivotal allusion to the future (that is now) comes as Carter, citing the “debt we owe to the office,” argues that the White House is greater than any of its occupants, a sobering reflection completely lost on the current one.

More than mere impersonations of questionably great men, Five Presidents delivers a political crazy quilt — two decades worth of recriminations, reminiscences and regrets from some achingly human leaders of the free world. Cleveland persuasively puts us in a room where large and little revelations both define and deny two Democrats and three Republicans. This play takes the pulse of history and pronounces it, well, ours.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Five Presidents
American Blues Theater
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs & Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 2:30 — check for exceptions
ends on October 19, 2019
for tickets, call 773.654.3103 or visit American Blues Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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