Review: ‘Five Presidents’

Martin L’Herault as Jimmy Carter (left to right), Tom McElroy as Gerald Ford, and John Carter Brown as George H. W Bush in “Five Presidents.”  (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: American Blues
Theater at Stage 773,
1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Oct. 19
Tickets: $19-$39
Phone: 773-654-3103

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

As we were leaving the Chicago premiere of Rick Cleveland’s “Five Presidents” at American Blues Theater, my companion said that he didn’t really see the purpose of the play.

He has a point.

While Cleveland knows his way around politics, having written for such television series as “The West Wing” and “House of Cards,” as well as creating his own one-man show “My Buddy Bill” (as in Clinton), the idea of using a real event to posit an imaginary conversation has serious limitations.

The event is the funeral of 37th President of the United States Richard Milhous Nixon on April 27, 1994, at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA. Four former presidents and the current one at the time – numbers 38 through 42 as they occasionally refer to themselves and each other—gathered for the occasion, and the playwright uses this as an excuse to put them into a small holding room to reminisce, reflect on the past, and rehash old resentments and recriminations. Their wives, only referred to, are apparently down the hall.

The first problem is there’s no plot to provide dramatic tension. Ushered in by Secret Service Agent Kirby (Denzel Tsopnang), the men arrive in the order they served – Gerald R. Ford (Tom McElroy),

Jimmy Carter (Martin L’Herault), Ronald Reagan (James Leaming), George H.W. Bush (John Carter Brown), Bill Clinton (Stephen Spencer) with a couple of allusions to his lateness—and talk about everything from the Gulf War to golf under the watchful eyes of Nixon’s portrait. The only action is that Ford, who’s still haunted by having pardoned Nixon and the resulting accusations, decides that he’s not going to give a eulogy, even though he’s already on the program, and Bush has to dissuade Reagan from replacing him for fear he’ll embarrass himself.

Reagan is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and the manifestations of this are the 90-minute  one act’s most poignant moments. They include irrational outbursts followed by apologies, protestations that he’s just slightly forgetful, and flashes of lucid self-awareness coupled with surprising insights, such as his observation that all the presidents are actors. Leaming, who has obviously taken great pains to study his most recognizable of subjects, does the best job of impersonating him without becoming a complete caricature.

The second problem is that the others, under the direction of Marty Higginbotham, don’t succeed as well in believably bringing to life figures that we all know from the media, and this failure is a distraction. McElroy’s Ford at least has the bearing of the man, and he comes across as the most sympathetic, thanks partly to a lion’s share of humorous lines. L’Herault has a Carter-esque smile going for him and a serious do-gooder side that’s a nice foil to his friend Ford’s more casual approach. Spencer’s hearty, lusty Clinton leans towards cartoon, and I would not recognize Brown as Bush if I didn’t know who the self-righteously preachy person was supposed to be.

Cleveland updated his 2015 script for this production, probably to reflect recent changes in the political climate. I didn’t see the show before but suspect he enhanced the 20-20 hindsight aspect of things we know in retrospect and expanded the answer Agent Kirby gives when these all-white members of the world’s most exclusive club ask him for an African American’s opinion.

Of course, it’s unlikely that a real secret service agent would ever speak so frankly in such a situation, and that obliquely raises a third problem. Although many films rewrite history, turning real people into fictional characters makes me very uncomfortable. There’s always the risk that somewhere, sometime Cleveland’s version of things could be mistaken for the truth, perhaps doing a disservice to those involved, perhaps sanitizing them, but certainly spreading what’s become known as “fake news.”

Despite the shortcomings of “Five Presidents,” Grant Sabin’s scenic design of a classic, elegant little room with vaguely institutional furnishings set the stage perfectly. Alexander Ridgers’ lighting and Warren Levon’s sound design complement the setting, and Michael Alan Stein’s costumes subtly suit each character.