Before last night, the most I could have told you about the Panama Canal is that it exists, that it was a big deal when the United States built it and that the French had tried and failed to do so before us.
So, before even diving into the experience of watching the play itself, praise has to be given to Paul Handy for writing what is an entertaining but highly educational play. As many DC residents probably already know, the building of the Panama Canal was a politically-charged powder keg. The cast handles that tension delicately.
Some quick background: There was argument over whether the canal should be built in the Colombian-occupied, illness-filled Panama or the highly corrupt Nicaragua. The heart of this production lies in that conflict, as we watch senators offer underhanded deals to sway opinion.
Case in point: William Nelson Cromwell (portrayed wonderfully as a shifty New York lawyer turned senator by Robert Mark O’Brien) reaches out to Alabama senator John Tyler Morgan (played indignantly by Terence Aselford) with a gift of Cuban cigars, attempting to change the Southerner’s mind about wanting the canal in Nicaragua. Morgan makes clear “I only smoke Americans.” “They’re Americans,” Cromwell replies.
Aselford trades his Southern accent for a Colombian one later in the play, portraying Carlos Martinez Silva. He deserves accolades for embodying two extremely different characters without missing a beat.
David A. Schmidt also deserves accolades, his for playing Ohio senator Mark Hanna, who was the political manager to President McKinley. Given Roosevelt’s status as an accidental president, it’s fascinating to watch Schmidt portray the snake-like Hanna, who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Carry a Big Stick
by Paul Handy
645 New York Ave NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
On the opposite side, Philip Baedecker should be lauded for playing the straight-laced Secretary of State John Hay. In a play filled with many underhanded political movements and deals, Hay’s honesty — he doesn’t even drink or smoke — cuts through like a knife through butter.
Finally, Tucker Bacon dons his best French accent to play the French engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla. He does so splendidly, offering a comedic punch to an otherwise sober production. “I saw a couple of prostitutes and some drunks. I feel like I’m back in Paris!”
The supporting cast is fantastic. Sadly, John McCaffrey, who plays President Roosevelt, is not. What’s most frustrating is that he could be, if only he had spent more time learning his lines. But throughout the play, he continuously drops them. As the situations become tenser and direr, he flubs important lines that should resonate with emotional impact i.e. “I still support Panama!” he exclaims. “I mean, Nicaragua. I’m sorry,” he sheepishly adds.
It’s a critical moment, and one of several he flubbed. When he is on, Roosevelt comes across as a force to be reckoned with, the Bull Moose himself. But more often than not, he’s doing his best to fix the lines he just misspoke.
For a play that is centered around President Roosevelt, this creates a major obstacle to enjoyment. This is an enjoyable play, and most of the cast is fantastic. But it might be better next year, with a little more practice.