The United States is going through a time of turbulence and change. On June 26, the Supreme Court made history by legalizing same sex marriage throughout the country. Healthcare continues to be a major issue that has proven so divisive that party lines have blurred. And it seems like every day a new politician throws his hat into the 2016 presidential race. So Bay Street Theater couldn’t have asked for better timing to open Rick Cleveland’s Five Presidents, a drama that imagines a meeting between Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton on the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral in 1994. Cleveland, who has written for politically minded television series like The West Wing and House of Cards, writes these former presidents with an honest and unglamorous authenticity, making for a magnetic evening of thought-provoking, moving theater.
It’s the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral, and Special Agent Mike Kirby (Reese Madigan) has been tasked with keeping watch over the five living presidents in the Nixon Library in Yorba, California. Kirby gets more than he bargained for when Gerald Ford (John Bolger) arrives first and casually declares that he won’t be delivering a eulogy. When Kirby reminds Ford that his name is already on the program—the first of many times Ford is reminded of this—Ford shrugs and relaxes, not willing to make any more sacrifices or statements on Nixon’s behalf. Jimmy Carter (Martin L’Herault) and George H.W. Bush (Mark Jacoby) try to convince Ford to reconsider, while Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan) is all too eager to fill in for Ford, seemingly unaware that his increasingly aggressive Alzheimer’s disease has everyone afraid of him speaking publicly. Meanwhile, a young, idealistic Bill Clinton (Brit Whittle) arrives late and immediately starts looking for camaraderie and connection with the others, unprepared for their world-weary, often cynical advice and attitudes. As they all shed their public, professional veneers—resentment, ego, anger, regret and grief bubble to the surface.
At a brisk 85 minutes, Five Presidents focuses more on character than plot, showcasing a strong, smart script and excellent performances that transcend easy impersonations or caricatures. Bolger anchors the piece as Ford, and is the source of the play’s superficial conflict. As Ford is constantly reminded, his name is on the program, so he absolutely must give a eulogy. Bolger hits all the right notes as everyone tries in vain to change his mind, reminding everyone (audience included) that he’s mainly known for pardoning Nixon and doesn’t care to do any more to honor or memorialize him. Bush, still sore over losing a second term to Clinton, first appears to be petty and antagonistic, taking little jabs at “Number 42” for decisions like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Jacoby and Whittle have great chemistry, and though we know there’s not going to be a presidential brawl (the show plays the political politeness fairly straight), the words exchanged have plenty of bite.
Director Mark Clements’ straightforward but clever staging never gets in the way of the rich script. The play’s most dramatic moment, involving Reagan refusing to come to terms with his own mortality and vulnerability, is particularly well-done, with Sheridan never going over the top but showing a devastating amount of despair and self-loathing that could have been lost in less able hands. The set design by Todd Edward Ivins and sound design by Brian Jerome Peterson combine with Clements’ direction in the poignant and potent ending, which will not be spoiled here.
In its East Coast premiere, Five Presidents is yet another strong new work to be staged at Bay Street Theater. Timely, mature and highly entertaining, theatergoers are encouraged to check out this compelling drama.
Five Presidents runs through July 19 at the Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. The final Mainstage show this season, Grey Gardens The Musical, runs from August 4–August 30. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 and go to baystreet.org.