Has there been, in our lifetimes, a greater political enigma than our 40th President, Ronald Wilson Reagan? We saw him, as the public man, on our television screens for twenty-eight years: the nation’s grandpa, sweetly reasonable, soft-voiced, prone to sentimentality and foggy about the details. House Speaker Tip O’Neill called him “an amiable dunce”, and many people shared that assessment.
Yet no President since FDR – not even the protean Lyndon Johnson – enjoyed the sort of success he did. Under his administration, unemployment and inflation, both double digits under his predecessor, were massively reduced. Against the predictions of virtually every economist, his tax cuts (when they were eventually adjusted upward, in 1986), actually increased revenue to the Federal government by 5% after inflation. Most importantly, his foreign policy, and in particular his outlandish Strategic Defense Initiative, which proposed to shoot missiles down from space, eventually led to the collapse of our Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.
Even the greatest scandal of his administration, the illegal and clandestine arming of the Nicaraguan contras with arms purchased from Iran, turned out to the advantage of his political objectives. The communist Nicaraguan government was forced to hold free elections, and the voters booted them out.
Who was this man? There is nothing in his background – lifeguard, sports announcer, movie actor, corporate spokesman – to suggest a great 20th century statesman. He was a smooth talker, to be sure, but his speech tended to conventional rhetoric and bromides. He projected tremendous warmth, but had few friends, and those close to him (including his own children) said he was cold and remote. His daughter Patti said that he “came from smoke.”
Saturday Night Live once had a sketch in which we purportedly saw the “real” Ronald Reagan – barking out orders to his exhausted subordinates, speaking in Farsi to Iranians over the phone, dictating three Executive Orders at once – suddenly obliged to revert to the familiar figure we know in order to meet some Girl Scouts. Was this what was going on? Was Reagan really a mastermind, posing as a genial storyteller to take us all in? When I saw Reagan’s White House Diary in the remainder bin some years ago, I snapped it up hoping to find the SNL Reagan come to life. Alas, it was simply a sodden collection of anecdotes. It could have been written by a barber.
Veteran playwright Michael Weller thus takes on the difficult task of locating Reagan in A Late Morning [in America] with Ronald Reagan. It is 1993, and Reagan (John Keabler) is eighty-two, midway between his final public speech – a rousing defense of George H.W. Bush at the Republican Convention – and the stark, mordant announcement of his Alzheimer’s, shortly after Nixon’s funeral in 1994. He is with a reporter from the Wyoming Horse Breeder’s Monthly (the reporter is never seen on stage). She has asked the same question we ask, and which is also the title of his autobiography: where’s the rest of him? He is charmed by the audacity of her request, and has invited her to interview him, and drink lemonade.
It is a condition of the interview that politics not be discussed, and this necessarily ushers in the whole cavalcade of biographical detail familiar to those with even a casual interest in Reagan: small-time life in Dixon, Illinois; his sweet, useless father, a shoe salesman and a drunk; his career as a lifeguard; his football failures; his effort to find a job in the sportscasting business; his acting career; and so on. As he tells these stories he sometimes falls into reverie; projections (Christopher Erbe and Taran Schatz) appear on the walls and offscreen voices (uncredited) speak for the characters he describes. Weller takes care to craft these accounts with Reaganesque charm, and generally succeeds. Keabler tries to deliver them as Reagan might have and is somewhat less successful. This is not so much a knock on Keabler as it is an acknowledgment that Reagan really had an incomparable way with a story; for an actor to do Reagan telling a story is a challenge comparable to imitating Brando doing the Stella! scene from Streetcar.
A Late Morning [in America] with Ronald Reagan
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
What’s more, the Ronald Reagan in this play is a compromised Reagan, his brain being smeared with protein buildups. He loses track in the middle of a story; switches to another; repeats himself; gets distracted. He returns again and again to his love for his wife Nancy. That he drew profound nourishment from this sometimes difficult woman is not news, though. On the other hand, he says nothing about his four children, except to express some peevishness with Patti, who had done a thousand things to provoke him. This is also not news.
Keabler is not nearly Reagan’s age – I’m guessing he’s in his mid-thirties – and does not look or sound much like him, except for his immaculately coiffed hair. This is all permissible under Weller’s text, which specifies that the actor need not resemble the President. But the result is that for four-fifths of the play, we hear an actor playing a man with a failing memory and failing powers of concentration telling stories about the bygone days, principally about a Hollywood which no longer exists. This is not high art.
It is only when we get to the forbidden world of politics does the narrative perk up. He describes his electrifying speech in the San Francisco Cow Palace on behalf of the doomed Presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, and then glides through his two terms as California Governor and into the White House. (There is nothing about his unsuccessful 1976 campaign).
And then, for ten minutes, we get the real juice: the confrontation, in Geneva and Reykjavik with Mikhail Gorbachev which ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The real purpose of his life, and his strategy to achieve it, comes into sharp focus here, and we realize that Ronald Reagan was a much shrewder, and more accomplished, man than we give him credit for being. This is, of course, Weller’s spin on those meetings, but it is a plausible one, and beautifully executed in this production.
Weller, who describes himself as “on the other side of the world” from Reagan politically, makes no effort to critique the President’s policy choices. This is a good decision; the purpose of a one-actor bio-play is to understand, not judge. When Hal Holbrook dons his wig to play Mark Twain, it is not to evaluate the literary merits of Huckleberry Finn.
But does Weller satisfy the reporter’s question, and lead us to fully understand Ronald Reagan in this play? I think not. It is a massive task, and I do not believe that the tools to do so are available yet. Until they are, we will have to satisfy ourselves with the occasional insight, the occasional bit of drama, the occasional good story.
A Late Morning (in America) With Ronald Reagan by Michael Weller, directed by Sam Weisman . Featuring John Keabler . Scenic design by Luciana Stecconi . Costume design by Sarita Fellows . Lighting design by John Ambrosone . Sound design by David Remedios . Projections design by Christopher Erbe and Taran Schatz . Original music by Dewey Dellay . Miguel Angel Lopez is the Technical Director . Tina Shackleford is the stage manager . Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.