Sure, this play is about electing a president. So it’s timely and it’s relevant, since we’re in the thick of a presidential campaign, with all eyes and ears glued to the polls and the pundits. The Camelot Theatre Company chose well for its October offering.
Yet, when I left the theatre, it occurred to me that what’s always most relevant to an audience isn’t the timeliness of the subject matter, but the worthiness of the writing and the quality of the performances.
Which is to say, this particular production would be equally as relevant served up in any year, at any time. Credit goes to a sharp and scintillating script by Gore Vidal and, especially, one of the finest single performances I’ve witnessed this year in any theatre: The estimable Grant Shepard as the dying ex-president Arthur Hockstader.
A retired professor of English and Theatre Arts, the 96-year-old Shepard shines in the role of the wise and wizened kingmaker, whose critical endorsement is sought by the two leading candidates at the kind of political convention we haven’t witnessed in decades. It’s set in 1960. Shepard’s stage presence is as compelling as the power his character wields. He is simply there. I could not take my eyes off him.
Back to relevance, for a moment: While the subject matter is timely, the campaign and the convention presented was fascinating not for the similarities with today’s race, but with the distinct differences.
In the play, the intellectual and highly ethical former Secretary of State William Russell (Don Matthews) and the nakedly ambitious Sen. Joseph Cantwell (David Dials) are vying for votes from delegates in an anachronistic nominating convention.
Ironically, today’s made-for-TV conventions—except for the Republicans’ Clint Eastwood shtick which was more like a refreshing wardrobe malfunction—have more in common with the TV commercials we were treated to during scene changes; projecting those classic ads as a counterpoint (for Hertz, Brylcreem and Alka Seltzer) was a brilliant stroke by director Roy Von Rains, Jr.
The plot has the desperate Cantwell threatening to expose and leverage his opponent’s leaked medical history—a “nervous breakdown”—to force Russell’s withdrawal. (While in real life, a similar revelation upended the candidacy of Sen. Thomas Eagleton for vice president in 1972, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any such secrets surviving media scrutiny and party vetting today. But then again…)
To counter that, Russell’s campaign staff digs up dirt on Cantwell (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell).
The stage is set for a series of gripping and increasingly intense second act confrontations between the candidates themselves and, especially, between the candidates and the former president.
The scenes shift seamlessly between the convention quarters of Russell and Cantwell on a handsome set by Don Zastoupil and Rains.
The able and convincing performances of both Matthews and Dials shift into a higher gear as a series of unexpected twists ratchet up the suspense. Playing the wannabe first ladies, Presila Quinby, as Cantwell’s wife, and Renee Hewitt, as Russell’s, are superb in their supporting roles, offering nuanced and credible characterizations.
Playing a character who is estranged from her husband and remaining in the marriage for the sake of his career, Hewitt strikes an especially authentic and sympathetic chord.
While the candidates in “The Best Man” may bear little resemblance to the characters we’ll be voting for in November, I’m casting my ballot now for Grant Shepard’s stunning and memorable performance. See this solid production through Oct. 28.
(For this review, I credit my play going partner Clista Prelle-Tworek for her insights and artist’s perspective. Please see one example of her work below and find more on her website: http://www.clistaspastels.com/.
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