by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
Produced by Ford’s Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
“Democracy,” H.L. Mencken once wrote, “is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.”
In Ford Theatre’s handsome, amiable, absolutely charming State of the Union, the people want spontaneity, high principle, and independence from party bosses. And the party bosses are prepared to give it to them.
Imagine a supremely accomplished industrialist who seeks to awaken the better angels in the American people – to appeal to their sense of pride and self-sacrifice; to encourage them to work with each other, and, even more radically, to work with other peoples to assure peace and prosperity. Everywhere he goes he is mobbed by men and women who have been revitalized by his message. He is received less as a politician and more as a movie star – or a prophet. What do we make of such a person?
Less than you might imagine, according to Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s subtle, layered, surprisingly modern 1945 Pulitzer-winning script. High principle is the beginning of self-governance, but it cannot succeed without high politics as well.
As a run-up to the show, Ford’s Theatre arranged for a panel of savvy political commentators, including CBS’ Bob Scheiffer, former GOP Chair Ed Gillespie, former Democratic Chair Charles Manatt, and the legendary journalist Helen Thomas to talk about the state of politics now. The first question they addressed – and the one closest to the show’s theme – was whether principle has a place in politics. Surprisingly, they all agreed that a candidate who had principles which he held to be important had a terrific edge on a candidate who did not.
State of the Union is of the same view. It is the year before the presidential election, and the Republicans are in trouble. Out of power for fifteen years, they are in danger of becoming marginalized – the Washington Generals of politics. Grant Matthews (Jim Abele), businessman and idealist, has won a huge following for his noble, somewhat naïve, philosophy. Newspaper publisher Kay Thorndyke (Martha Hackett) – who is also Matthews’ lover – has become convinced that she has found the man who can take the Republicans to victory in 1948. She assigns a particularly plugged-in reporter (Andrew Polk) to be his campaign manager, and takes them to meet Republican kingpin James Conover (Sam Tsoutsouvas).
Conover sees some potential, but he recognizes one problem which must be remedied immediately: voters, then as now, will not tolerate a married candidate who is carrying on an affair with another woman. He proposes that they gauge Matthews’ possibilities during a cross-country speaking tour, but warns that it will work only if Matthews attempts to reconcile with his wife, Mary (Ellen Karas). Matthews agrees, with consequences that Conover never anticipated: it turns out that Mary serves as Grant’s moral compass and gatekeeper to his idealism. She urges him to make decisions which, if he adopts, will prevent him from ever being elected President.
Critics, in 1945 and the present, often see State of the Union as a paean to principle above politics, but it is more, and better, than that, and Ford’s Theatre, to its credit, recognizes the story’s full complexity. Grant and Mary’s commitment to their principles springs partly from moral responsibility, but it also comes from ego. Flooded with accolades for a speech he made in Topeka, Kansas, Grant cavalierly crumples and tosses a critical telegram from some Labor leaders. (Back then, Republicans sought Labor’s support). We discover that Labor’s point of view on this issue was legitimate, and Grant’s position was stubborn and unreasonable. Later, at a dinner party, a braying jackass of a judge (the fabulous Floyd King) gives Grant a brochure with some quotations from his judicial writings; Grant gets rid of it as soon as the Judge leaves. The judge may be a jackass, but the brochure represented his life’s work, and that Grant would so easily dismiss it bespeaks an arrogance unfitting in the nation’s leader.
In this complex piece, the real hero might not be the conflicted Grant or his insistent wife, but Conover, a cerebral, sophisticated politician whose ideals are grounded in the realities of practical politics. Working in the midst of an outstanding cast, Tsoutsouvas brings something special to the role – a sort of Anthony Hopkins sensibility which immediately elevates the stakes and suggests that politics might be, after all, an honorable profession.
Every member of this cast is no worse than excellent, and a few performances merit special note. The term “chemistry” is overused in criticism, but the relationship between Abele and Karas shows all of the passion, anger, concern, love and yearning which could pass between two people who had been through so much together. Similarly, King and Nancy Robinette, as the Judge and his dipsomaniacal wife, signal a lifetime of rollicking misadventure together in every parry and thrust between them. Naomi Jacobson, playing both an Irish maid and a tightly-wound foreign policy analyst, gave the roles such distinction that I did not recognize that she played them both until I looked at my program. And Tsoutsouvas was simply superb.
This is somewhat of a talky play – I guess theatergoers had more spare time in 1945 than they do now – but Kyle Donnelly directs it as crisply as he can without losing meaning. Scenic designer Kate Edmunds has festooned the stage with political posters and signs from Lincoln to Bush and has ringed the stage with television sets which play political commercials and other memorabilia from Presidential campaigns, from Eisenhower through Clinton during the plays’ two intermissions. None of it has much to do with the play but it is quite delightful.
State of the Union runs Tuesday through Sunday at 7.30 p.m. until October 22 except Thursday, October 12 and 19, which will be at 12 noon. Saturday and Sunday will also have a 2.30 matinee, except for September 30. Tickets run from $25 to $52 and may be ordered online at http://www.fordstheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 202.347.4833.