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THEATER REVIEW Five Presidents
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-09-18

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Playwright: Rick Cleveland

At: American Blues Theater @Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 1-773-654-3103; AmericanBluesTheater.com; $29-$39. Runs through: Oct. 19

Richard Nixon, our 37th president, has been likened to Shakespeare's tragic heroes, but Greek tragedy is closer to the mark. Death releases Othello, Macbeth, Lear and Hamlet but Oedipus, Medea, Agamemnon, Prometheus, Electra, etc. must live out their lives with the consequences of their actions. And so it was with Nixon, as Five Presidents shows us.

It's a fictional work based on fact: Richard Nixon's 1994 funeral brought together former Presidents Gerald Ford ( Tom McElroy ), Jimmy Carter ( Martin L'Herault ), Ronald Reagan ( James Leaming ) and George H. W. Bush ( John Carter Brown ) and sitting President Bill Clinton ( Stephen Spencer ). Playwright Rick Cleveland imagines their conversation in the handsomely bland hotel-style function room ( thanks to Grant Sabin's scenic design ) where the Commanders in Chief gather before the service, share a drink and engage in talk not always small. As Cleveland has demonstrated before, he's a witty writer with a sharp understanding of politics and politicians.

Ultimately, these are familiar guys if not entirely ordinary. My dad would say, "They put on their pants one leg at a time, just like everyone." They are proud, indulged ( used to being obeyed ), salty, vulnerable, worried about legacy, petty and surprisingly personable. Yes, they have old axes to grind and deeds to defend but, as George Bush comments, they've not gathered to talk politics. Their shared bonds are greater than any disagreements, for only these five people totally understand what being POTUS means. Often called the world's most exclusive club, it rarely has even five members at any given time. Two things upon which they agree: Richard Nixon was homely and his Presidency made it harder for all who followed.

Cleveland's play boasts no revelations—except, perhaps, the assertion that Reagan had an affair with Marilyn Monroe "before the Kennedys"—and it ends with the familiar caution that people in a democracy get the government they deserve. We learn that Bubba drinks beer, Carter sips bourbon, Bush prefers gin and tonic, Reagan imbibes Orange Blossoms ( gin, vermouth and OJ ) and Ford is on the wagon. When mightily tempted to have a drink, his fellow Presidents dissuade him in support of his sobriety, one of the play's more touching moments.

Cleveland's real skill—honed by his years as a playwright and Emmy Award winning writer/producer of superior television drama—is creating credible tension for each President and shifting focus between them to keep us engaged. A fictional Secret Service Agent ( Denzel Tsopnang ) also has a momentary spotlight. Cleveland's dialogue—vocabulary, phrasing and rhythm—is exactly on target for each President, and is aptly delivered in suitable physical and vocal impressions by a top veteran cast, directed by Marty Higginbotham who smartly keeps his players moving across a potentially static setting.


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