It was a historic occasion when George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton all came together for Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s 1994 funeral. We’ll never know what really went on among those men, but writer Rick Cleveland and director Marty Higginbotham have created a fictional account that tries to give the average person some insight into the life of an American President, while injecting some much needed soul and humor into the production by American Blues Theater.
Five Presidents follows George H. W. Bush (John Carter Brown), Ronald Reagan (James Leaming), Jimmy Carter (Martin L’Herault), Gerald Ford (Tom McElroy), Bill Clinton (Stephen Spencer) as well as Secret Service Agent Kirby (Denzel Tsopnang) as they come together for the funeral of Richard Nixon. They compare stories of crises they’ve been through, snap at each other over partisan politics, and eventually make up when they realize how much they have in common. It’s a really good set up for a production, and I really love the dialogue. You don’t usually get to experience George H. W. Bush yelling at Bill Clinton while Ronald Reagan gives a speech about how being the President is just like being an actor, and that if you don’t think so that means you’re an even better actor. This production could have been really good, but it falls flat in one key area.
My main problem with this production is the stilted way most of the actors handle their lines. It almost felt like they were reading their lines off a teleprompter, which really took away the weight of many of the stories told by these presidents. When Brown—George H. W. Bush—was talking about having American blood on his hands, I should have sympathized with him, but really just felt like he was reading his lines with the stage direction, “be angry.” In fact, there were only two actors who I felt really got their roles, and those were Leaming as Ronald Reagan and Tsopnang as Agent Kirby.
Leaming does a truly incredible job portraying the anger and confusion felt by people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s, and as someone whose grandmother had Alzheimer’s, I feel he did a really impressive job of displaying the early stages of the disease that Reagan was probably suffering from at this time. In fact, the only moments where I felt the rest of the actors were really putting feeling into their lines was in responding to Leaming’s genuinely gut-wrenching confusion. As for Tsopnang, he doesn’t have a very large role except for one scene where Spencer—as Clinton—calls him in to give his candid opinion on whether there will ever be an African-American President. Agent Kirby, as an African-American, has some choice words for this group of five old, white men, and his following monologue is one of the best parts of the play.
Five Presidents is a great premise for a play, and listening to dialogue, I know I could have really enjoyed it. The main problem is that, besides Leaming and Tsopnang, the other actors just weren’t putting enough life and emotion into their roles.
Five Presidents by American Blues Theater continues at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., through October 19. Running time is 80 minutes. Buy tickets here for performances Thursday-Sunday.