Saturday, March 31, 2018

Celebrating James Still's 20 years as playwright-in-residence, IRT brings back "Looking Over the President's Shoulder"

One hopes Indiana Repertory Theatre, in the 500th production of its history, can attract a young crowd to the 20th-century American history play James Still has put together from the memoir of Alonzo Fields, White House chief butler to four presidents.

"Looking Over the President's Shoulder" also had David Alan Anderson in its sole role in 2008. In its opening-night reprise Friday on the Upper Stage, murmurs of recognition from the audience were frequent as Anderson's Fields plumbed his capacious memory for anecdotes of chief executives from Herbert Hoover through Dwight Eisenhower and the times they helped shape and that shaped them.
David Alan Anderson as Alonzo Fields

In a span of consequential years from 1931 to 1953, Fields also had the opportunity to store up impressions of Great Britain's king and queen and its most famous prime minister of recent history, Winston Churchill. And among celebrities ranging from Hollywood's Errol Flynn to Marie Dressler, one White House visitor had for him particular resonance, both literal and metaphorical: Marian Anderson.

The Indiana-born Fields, raised in a self-sufficient African-American small town, harbored serious ambitions to make a career out of opera and concert singing, much like the famous contralto. His nurturing upbringing gave him a resilience that stood him in good stead when he felt that accepting an offer to join the White House staff was prudent as the Depression tightened its grip on most Americans. The dream sustained him, however. And of course he had first-hand knowledge of racism apart from the public sphere in which Marian Anderson encountered it. His way forward was to be the best kind of servant in the most prestigious job, drawing upon both patriotism and personal pride.

Fields has a lot to say, and it would have felt tedious for Still as playwright to lard his script with explanations. Nor would it have been appropriate for him to range outside Fields' point of view: When the butler praises Franklin Roosevelt for his evident conviction that "the White House belonged to all the people," the unbidden rejoinder that comes to mind — "except for Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast" —  must be dismissed. "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" is only in part a history lesson; it is principally a studiously yet vividly limned portrait of a remarkable historical figure.

Three years ago, I said of the actor's performance in IRT's "What I Learned in Paris" by Pearl Cleage:  "Anderson adds to his admirable record of filling to the max portrayals of men to be reckoned with." He extends that record here. Directed by Janet Allen, he is reflective and boisterous, acutely observant and wryly amused, as the narrative requires. He is a deft mimic: I won't soon forget his Eleanor Roosevelt or his Churchill (though I wonder if the real Churchill had such trouble standing erect).

Spare, elegant, and leaving lots of room for the audience's imagination to fill the gaps, Robert M. Koharchik's scenic design was eloquently supplemented by Chris Berchild's projections of historical photographs behind Anderson. A period chair for each of the presidents Fields served was brought into place as the show progressed; each of them carried a marvelous aura given substance by the actor's well-modulated words. Recorded music and sound were timely and just as restrained as they needed to be: Fields' reminiscences, as molded by Still and interpreted by Anderson, rightly commanded the stage. (It's rare when a spoiler comes in the form of a design element, so I won't describe the stunning one in the final scene. Suffice it to say that a concluding  ex machina doesn't always have to be a deus.)

As I watched, the unwelcome mental distraction of the current Chief Executive that troubled me from time to time is no fault of this amazing production. And allowing for the degree to which the shrewd, buoyant personality of Fields idealized Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower somewhat — with Truman held in justifiably high regard — "Looking Over the President's Shoulder" bears the stamp of genuine experience. It will bring substance and dignity to set against understandable suspicion among younger baby boomers, millennials, and Generation Whatever that the Oval Office has become the center ring in a dismal circus.

[Photo by Drew Endicott]