“If you want this job, there’s something deeply wrong with you.” – Ronald Reagan in Five Presidents
When former president Richard M. Nixon died in 1994, his funeral brought together the four living ex-presidents, along with current commander-in-chief Bill Clinton to attend the funeral. When writer Rick Cleveland, who has contributed scripts to politically themed drama series “The West Wing” and “House of Cards,” turned his imagination to the question of what might have transpired behind closed doors when Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton encountered each other that day, it resulted in the 2015 play Five Presidents. The play opened in a new production directed by Phil Funkenbusch last week at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library.
The drama is sharply written, as might be expected from a “West Wing” writer, featuring insightful moments exposing the strengths and foibles of each member of its uniquely powerful American quintet. Humor, some of it ribald, runs through the production, along with tension and high drama as these five men negotiate their places in history in the light of Nixon’s passing, as well as addressing simmering resentments and surprising warmth between a group of men with no real peers apart from each other.
The ALPLM production is brisk and energetic, with the 90-minute show (with no intermission) seeming to breeze by. A minimal set, representing a makeshift “holding room” at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, contains all of the action, foregrounding the performances. A conflict set in motion by Gerald Ford’s last-minute decision to cancel his planned eulogy for Nixon provides about as much plot as the play has to offer. However, plot is hardly the point, as these five fascinating, conflicted heads of state square off.
The performances are uniformly strong, although the varying levels of physical and vocal resemblance between the actors and the iconic figures they are portraying inevitably takes some getting used to, as each characterization is given a chance to assert itself. Rich McCoy, who gave a memorable performance as LBJ in last year’s Hoogland Center production of All the Way, here brings a prickly gravitas to a Gerald Ford eternally vexed by his presidential pardon of Nixon after his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Patrick Foster’s rendition of Jimmy Carter provides a spiritual center to the proceedings, a little less crass and more circumspect than his cohort, while also seething with some barely concealed resentments. As shown here, the friendship developed over the years between once-bitter rivals Carter and Ford is touching and genuine.
Much further from being resolved is the bitterness between the recently defeated George H.W. Bush, played with a wounded haughtiness by Tom Lawton, and the still-green Bill Clinton, given an alternately callow and incisive quality by Ed MacMurdo. The two often seem ready to tear into each other, only held back by the decorum required of their positions and the somber circumstance.
Chuck McCue has a more challenging road to hoe as Ronald Reagan. He does an admirable job of embodying the famously folksy Reagan charm and humor while negotiating the portrayal of symptoms of the Gipper’s encroaching dementia without devolving into either cheap laughs or mawkish pathos. Perhaps surprisingly, Cleveland provides Reagan with some of the show’s most cutting lines and introspective observations, as well as its broadest humor and easily the night’s most risqué passage (in the form of a very specific reminiscence about Marilyn Monroe).
Although Five Presidents debuted in the faraway year of 2015, its dramatic snapshot of a group of American political leaders, hailing from differing parties and age groups but all interacting with respect and even empathy in spite of their differences, can’t help but shine an indirect light on our current political climate, where childish sniping and insulting nicknames have become the new norm for policy discourse and across-the-aisle alliances seem as extinct as the dodo. This play may not offer a path back to more civil times, but it at least provides a window into a world where such a thing might be possible.
Remaining performances of Five Presidents will take place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 2-4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s Union Theater, 212 N. Sixth St. in Springfield. For ticket information, visit alplmfoundation.tix.com.