|EISENHOWER: THIS PIECE OF GROUND|
All bioplays in which historical figures talk to an audience need to find a conceit to make this set-up believable, and kudos to playwright Richard Hellesen for finding a more creditable way than usual in the informative and modestly entertaining “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” now in the middle of a two-month run at the Theatre at St. Clements.
The former military hero and ex-president (commandingly and convincing played by John Rubinstein) arrives in 1962 to his Gettysburg farm (well-designed by Michael Deegan) seething over a just-published “New York Times” article in which 75 historians have ranked him as the 22nd best president (or 10th worst) of all time. The assessment isn’t all bad; they’ve acknowledged him as a Great America, but telling Ike that he was a far poorer chief executive than Andrew Johnson or James Polk is making his blood boil.
As it happens, he also enters to a ringing phone with one Kevin McCann (who helped write Eisenhower’s memoir “Man from Abilene”) on the other end of the line urging him to pen another tome. The tape recorder is already set up, Eisenhower’s wife Mamie and his assistant John are in town for a few hours, so away we go.
While we may be expecting a specific rebuttal to these historians’ charges, the show’s first act (each one is 45 minutes) doesn’t get anywhere near 1952. Instead, Ike indulges in a breathless stream-of-consciousness monologue which darts back, forth and sideways from him growing up with a strict dad, loving mom and a pack of brothers in turn-of-the-century Kansas to his early days at West Point and military career that stretched over two wars – most notably as the commander of the D-Day invasion during World War II -- among other subjects.
The house’s picture window becomes a screen (designed by Joe Huppert) that displays everything from the outdoor of the farm (complete with a putting green) to portraits of individuals to the beach at Normandy, a concept that gives the show some visual appeal while also acting as a sometimes-unnecessary distraction
Director Peter Ellenstein keeps Rubinstein moving busily about the room (albeit in shockingly ill-fitted trousers), but we keep wishing the phone might ring again (and again), so we could have some time to absorb all this information being thrown at us – it is too much for such a short period -- and so Rubinstein (who admittedly shows no signs of exhaustion) could catch his breath as well.
Most of all, we (or is it just I?) wish we could just get to the subject supposedly at hand; unfortunately, we must wait partway into Act II until Ike even addresses the elephant in the room. First, there are stories about how Harry Truman considered asking Ike to replace him on the 1948 Democratic ticket, how he became the first head of NATO despite the opposition of isolationists in Congress, and an aside or two about how he never wanted the Presidency (without explaining how he got talked into leading the 1952 ticket or, worse yet, why he chose Richard Nixon as his running mate!)
Finally, Eisenhower’s self-defense arrives, and Rubinstein delivers it with the perfect blend of passion and humility. I’ll leave it to you – or people with a firmer grasp of history than myself -- to decide if you really believe he couldn’t control Jospeh McCarthy in any way, was as strong a civil rights advocate as he claims (he blames the lack of voting rights for Negroes on LBJ) or really ignored his instincts, thereby allowing the CIA to send Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane in the air – to be almost immediately shot down by the Russians.
Regardless, there’s no doubt Eisenhower gave the U.S. eight years of peace and prosperity, which is largely unarguable. And a postscript on the screen that shows Eisenhower’s ranking climbing over the decades until he’s been named the 5th best president ever in 2022 is a fact. (There’s no footnote listed here, but he did achieve that rank in a C-SPAN poll.) And, as he jokes (as if he had ESP), he’s a lot better than some of the men who would follow him.
As the play finally comes together we, the seated, are forced to consider if Ike really is standing on solid ground –whether we like him or not!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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