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CurtainUp DC Review
Looking Over The President's Shoulder
by Rich See
In a show that is ideal for its space, Ford's Theatre is offering the DC-area premiere of Looking Over The President's Shoulder. More than just a historical drama about the White House's first African-American Chief Butler, it's also a discussion about one man's coming to terms with how he has spent his life and what he has done with his creative talents. When all is done and he finishes up his First Family reminiscences, Alonzo Fields asks the same question many of us do -- "Have I lived my life wisely?" And in Mr. Fields case, he comes to the conclusion, that perhaps there were different paths he could have chosen, but in the end he lived his life expressing the inner creativity that he knew shone so brightly inside himself. And that said, I haven't given away anything at all about this enjoyable evening of personal reflection and historical documentary.
Written and directed by James Still, this one-man show is based upon the diaries of the real life Alonzo Fields, who worked in the White House for twenty-one years and three months. During his time he saw four different administrations: Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Each new president was a unique personality, with his own idiosyncrasies, requiring a different repertoire of interpersonal skills to work with and assist. Mr. Still's play attempts to go beyond the historical record to bring each of these different men and their families into a more personal and human focus, while touchingly sharing the life story of the man who ran their various households. In directing the piece, Still has chosen well with Wendell Wright as his star and with the relaxed delivery of the actor's dialogue.
At his best when making insightful comical asides to the audience, Mr. Wright displays a dynamism and energy on stage that is infectious. He moves quickly from tearful scene to butler-like efficiency with such ease that you feel the entire performance is a personal discussion he's having with you as an individual. You never doubt for a second that he is a butler working for the president and it pains you when he shares information that may not be the most flattering about each of these four heads-of-state. And it is to Mr. Still and Mr. Wright's credit that the character of Alonzo Fields never takes a backseat to the famous men and women that he is talking about. While Alonzo Fields takes you behind-the-scenes of the most famous address in the nation, the audience never stops wanting to know what motivates Fields to continue in a job that required him to give up so much of his own personal life. We care not just about Alonzo's gossip regarding Eleanor Roosevelt, but also what he endured while working at the White House. Wright is both believable in the role and also carries the show along at a nice pace. He allows the audience time to catch up to where he is going and then quickly turns the spotlight from the first families to himself to highlight his own unique perspective of watching things from "over the President's shoulder."
James Still's designers have done an excellent job of bringing the protocol and pomp of the White House to life. Set Designer Russell Metheny has created a wonderfully stately stage. Even when a dining room table descends from the ceiling, the scene is not so much elegant as grand. The pillars surrounding the stage and the benches scattered across it add more federal atmosphere, while the four chairs situated behind the star -- one an antique wheelchair -- represent Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Darren McCroom's lighting is done in the regal colors of blues and reds. And Michael Keck's sounds add words and background noise pulled from actual news broadcasts. Kathleen Egan's costume designs are simple and basic -- an every day suit for Mr. Wright to wear while talking about his pre-White House days and a tuxedo for when he is discussing his duties at his new job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Whether he is discussing racism within the walls of the White House, recalling Roosevelt's reaction to Pearl Harbor, or sharing that Harry Truman was his favorite President ("I always felt that he understood me as a man, not just a servant to be tolerated -- but as a man.") Mr. Wright shines as he takes us on a backstage tour of history's epicenter during the past century.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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