Highly Recommended ***** On entering the Milwaukee Rep. Theatre’s house, one is struck by the elegant set (Todd Edward Ivins) where the five living Presidents, the most exclusive club in the world, will gather for the funeral of Richard M. Nixon, in Rick Cleveland’s play “Five Presidents.” As we see the presidents enter, we are stuck by the excellent costumes (Mary Folino) and make-up (Lauren Wilde), each one is recognizable and looks so much like their historical or living counter-part that one is never confused about which president is which. All five figures have been parodied or portrayed before and each actor draws on these interpretations over the course of their performances, but brings something distinct, new, and real to their character. The main dramatic action of the play is who will give the eulogy for Nixon and what in the world will they can say. Ford (Jeff Steitzer) has reneged on his agreement to do so, refusing to “pardon him again.” Reagan (Steve Sheridan) wants to, but is suffering from increasing Dementia and the other ex-presidents have been told to keep him off stage.
In the interim, the presidents discuss what happened to them: Iran-Contra, the Iranian hostage crisis, Nixon’s pardon, and the gulf-war. There is a little bitterness in how they used these crises against each other, but mainly solidarity. After all, they are the only people in the world to have ever had this job and the ambience is mostly collegial: one the funniest moment in the play is when George H. W. Bush (Mark Jacoby) and Bill Clinton (Brit Whittle) commiserate over Ross Perot. The dialogue is hilarious and laced with dramatic irony because we here about the past, but also the future. George W. H. Bush says that Junior has “found God” even if he doesn’t seem to be able to manage a baseball team, and Carter (Martin L’ Herault), Ford (Jeff Steitzer) and Bush talk about how the new guy will fare and if there is any scandal in his future. In the end, it is Clinton (Brit Whittle): the current (and net yet full member of the club) silver-tongued President who agrees to say some final words about our nation’s most infamous president.
The dramatic irony as the show closes, is just as somber and unamusing as Richard Nixon himself. As the lights dim and we are reminded of just how moderate Nixon could sound when we hear his voice say, “People will hate you and try to destroy you, but when you hate them, you’ve destroyed yourself.” He has given the eulogy for politics. For it seems that since the Republican Revolution, the 2000 Election, and the rise of the Tea Party and Cable News, this kind of solidarity will soon be buried along with our living presidents who thus far have retained collegial friendships.
“Five Presidents” is playing through April 5, 2015 at the Milwaukee Rep at various times Wednesdays through Sunday’s ticket prices begin at $20.00 and can be purchased by calling 414-224-9490 or by visiting www.milwaukeerep.com. The theater is located at 180 East Wells Street West in Milwaukee, which by the way is an easier commute from the North Shore than heading to the loop. There is street parking and garage as well and many dining spots in the area. Again, Milwaukee theater is worth taking the drive north for.