Why do I go to the theater? It’s because of productions like Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, the one-man show about Dwight David Eisenhower starring John Rubenstein in a virtuoso performance. Playwright Richard Hellesen has crafted a show that informs on a personal and historical level while also being highly entertaining.
What sets the play into motion is an irate Eisenhower complaining, first to the publisher of his still-to-be-written memoir, and then to a tape recorder, his extreme displeasure with a Presidential ranking published in a 1962 New York Times Magazine story. The 34th President is rated very low on the list. As he grumbles and criticizes the criteria used by the high and mighty historians that were polled for the article, he builds a very convincing case for how the academicians got it wrong. [Spoiler Alert: Sixty years later Eisenhower is in the top tier of Presidential rankings.]
He lists accomplishments such as the establishment of NASA, the development of the Interstate Highway System, and the keeping of world peace. More importantly, he ruminates about his beliefs and practices when he led the United States. He discusses the importance of compromise and being conciliatory in setting policy and working with both political parties. Moderation and not extremism is critical in governing. Above all else is the Constitution. No person is above or beyond this underlying document of American democracy. He scoffs at Presidents tainted with scandal and men such as Senator Joseph McCarthy who attempted to subvert the country’s democratic ideals for personal gain and glory.
Sitting in the darkened theater, audience members can’t help but compare the words emanating from the stage with the political reality of today. It is sad and scary. Politicians and everyday citizens could learn a tremendous amount from this American statesman who led our country decades ago. It would be fascinating to think of possible changes in civility and the way our elected leaders interacted if every Republican and Democrat in Congress and all members of state legislatures attended a performance of this show.
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, would not be as impressive without the tour de force portrayal by John Rubenstein. The actor embodies the man in appearance and speech. The forcefulness of his delivery, his impassioned orations, and overall reminiscings can be spellbinding. Rubenstein imbues his performance with nuance and balderdash and enhances the role with effective facial and hand gestures and adroit use of pauses.
Director Peter Ellenstein brings out the humor, playfulness, warmth, and anger in Rubenstein’s role as the former general with artistry and aplomb. He skillfully modulates the tone of the production to show the many sides of Eisenhower.
Michael Deegan’s Scenic Design of Eisenhower’s home study is straightforward. It incorporates a large, painterly picturesque view of his Gettysburg farm that Projection Designer Joe Huppert aptly uses to flash occasional images of individuals from the ex-President’s past.
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, playing through July 30 at theTheatre at St. Clements, just a stone’s throw from Broadway at W. 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.