It is easy to think now, nearly a half-century after his time, that Jack Kennedy was a patron of the arts. This big building bears his name, and carries an enormous Robert Berks sculpture of his head in its Millennium Foyer. The gift shop is full of his biographies, and of accounts of his short walk through history. He invited Robert Frost to read at his inauguration, and his speeches were in the high language, full of literary allusions and classical tropes and inversions. (“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” was one; you, of course, know the most famous example.) At the time we thought he was a New Politician, a harbinger of things to come. We know differently now. He was one of a kind. He so personalized his style that later politicians – even excellent speakers like Reagan and Clinton – never dared use his devices again.
The idea that JFK was an arts hound is largely incorrect, too. Arts had always been Jackie’s thing, not her husband’s. JFK would rather suss out a Congressional race, or watch the fights on TV, than go to a play. In the end, he was less interested in art for its own sake than he was in the uses of art. Page through one of his bios, or listen to some of the well-preserved clips available on one of the machines near the sculpture, and you can hear overtones of Aristophanes or Shakespeare, Moliere or Arthur Miller. He aimed less to move Congress – he was generally a bust at that – and more to charge up the public, at which he was a brilliant success.
After having secured his election – a politician’s first priority, since the beginning of time – he appeared to use his art principally to urge Americans on to adventure. With Kennedy it was always a question of what was on the other side of the hill, or after the bend in the river, or at the end of the fifty-mile hike. This inquiry did not always end well for us but there is no doubt it was generally worth the trip. He took us to the Moon, where the first words should have been, as James Fitzpatrick observed, not Neil Armstrong’s malapropism but what Buzz Aldrin said afterwards: “There’s a hill over there.”
So it was not inappropriate that the final day of the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage festival should be given over to longer pieces about lengthy trips to satisfy important questions. I saw three of them: Theater Alliance’s The House Halfway; Journeyman Theater’s In the Service of the Queen, and Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Swansong.
In The House Halfway, the trip was literally to death’s door – to the anteroom of self-inflicted death. It is more than a fifty-mile hike for the Reverend Ernest Thompson (Michael Russotto), who is contemplating suicide for the most persuasive reason of all: he has concluded that his life, up to now, has been nothing more than a lie. The place he goes – The Dandle House, run by Dorothy Dandle (Jennifer Mendenhall) – is a sort of rooming house for those contemplating their final act, where they can lie in wait and, if they decide, dispatch themselves without judgment or condemnation. There are others there, too: Faye (Kathleen Coons), a young woman who has caught on to the lies inherent in the Disneyfication of her world; and Tyler Jones (Alexander Strain), a gay blind man who has concluded, in contradiction to the Mario Cuomo trope, that maybe death is better than life. Dorothy Dandle, Socrates-like, does nothing more than ask questions, even when Thompson’s true-believer wife Lydia (Sherri Edelen) shows up, ostensibly to drag her husband home. (Brandon McCoy rounds out the cast as Robbie, the efficient factotum). This is the first play Theater Alliance has ever commissioned, and playwright Norman Allen and the cast afterward took feedback from a lively and largely savvy audience. This was a fine, warm, entirely convincing cast in which Strain, a non-equity actor getting an enormous amount of work recently, stood out.
The trip is a more conventional one in In Service to the Queen, a new Bo Wilson play Journeyman is producing. Anne Pilgrim (Ellen Young), a Victorian spinster lady of late middle years, decides to travel from England to New Zealand with four of her beehives, in order to introduce pollination, and thus profitable agriculture, to England’s easternmost colony. Like virtually everyone born on that island empire, Anne is indomitable, even in the face of facts, and she presses on notwithstanding that her destination, when she finally reaches it, is in flames. Once there, though, her trip takes a spiritual turn. She comes to realize that she is less in service to the Queen than in service to God, and without losing her practical edge or hard-headedness, she opens herself and her provenance to the land and the future. That’s quite a journey, man. Whalen J. Laurence plays a sympathetic ship’s officer; Jennica Nishida is a Maori princess; and Joseph W. Lane, Manolo Santalla, Nicholas H. Ford Greek, Matt Dunphy, and the excellent Scott McCormick play multiple roles.
Swansong traces the journey and edgy friendship of iconic writers Ben Jonson (Andrew Long) and William Shakespeare (Tom Hammond), from their days as young playwrights and actors through Shakespeare’s death, to the composition of Jonson’s famous poetic preface to the first folio. The subject of their three-decade debate is nothing less than hate vs. love. To Jonson, the bricklayer’s stepson, writing is like the construction of a gibbet, from which he executes the pompous, the obnoxious, and those otherwise worthy of death. To Shakespeare, the glovemaker’s son, writing flows from an embracing love, and is no more difficult than the act which inspires it. Throughout Helen Hayes Award-winning Actor’s Patrick Page’s play Jonson, for whom envy is as natural as breathing, struggles with his feelings about his happy-go-lucky, ubersuccessful friend. You can see how it ends up. Lawrence Redmond rounds out this exceptionally strong cast as John Heminges, business manager for the King’s Men theatrical company.
Like the adventures Jack Kennedy proposed in his brief administration, the plays in this festival do more than stand there to be admired. They call us onward, to the next adventure; over the hill, around the bend. They compel us to turn the page.