Friday, March 12, 2004

Overlooking presidents: Contrived script too much for this one man

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Looking back across the street to the White House from a bus stop, Alonzo Fields (Larry Marshall) also looks back upon his 21 years of service as a butler in the president’s mansion.

"The ol’ house," as Fields calls it, is familiar ground. He knows every inch of the place, and every moment of its history, from its construction by black men — both slave and free — to the day he retired from service.

Fields, black himself, served four presidents there, in real life and in James Still’s play, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, based on Fields’s memoir and his personal journals.

It is an entertaining play, exploring the more personal attributes of Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. It views the presidents as men, and judges them on how they treat their household help.

As playwright, Still collected a set of interesting tidbits about the presidents’ domestic lives, and used them to construct a chronologically choppy narrative. Perhaps it was meant to draw the audience in and heighten the dramatic tension, but it was disorienting to hop from 1941 to 1939 to 1940 to 1942.

He also uses Fields’s longing for music as a device that seems contrived at times. While Fields put off his singing career to support his family through the Depression, Still returns to the theme over and over. Still makes Fields seem a whiner who really would rather do something else than serve in a position of incredible luxury and privilege, sheltered from the bread lines and homelessness of the Depression.

Such an attitude is surprising, given Fields’s background. He is a grandson of slaves who speaks four languages, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and learned etiquette working at the home of MIT president Samuel Stratton.

It’s more likely — as suggested by the play’s final aria — that Fields longed for more time with his sickly wife, who spent most of her life in Boston visiting doctors. But most audience members won’t get that suggestion — the aria is obscure and sung in Italian, making it impossible to know what it was lamenting. (I was only able to learn that much by asking PSC staff, who had to ask around themselves.)

Beyond the play’s own challenge to belief comes Marshall’s acting. The role of Fields is hard to cast. It needs a black man, at least six feet tall and solidly built, who can sing with an opera-quality voice, do a range of impersonations, and memorize a two-and-a-half-hour show.

In Marshall, they found all that, including a man who has a very expressive face and can spin a good yarn. They also found a man who hesitated at a large number of lines — not just for the effect of an aging man reminiscing about his career. It seemed at times that he was struggling for his lines.

Marshall is also no butler. A man with 21 years’ experience butlering in the most protocol-conscious building in the entire country would not touch his nose with a white glove, nor allow a tablecloth to touch the floor, nor drop a giant piece of lint on the floor and allow it to remain there, nor shut a door anyway other than silently. All of these small flaws, repeated throughout the show, weaken the suspension of disbelief.

PSC Artistic Director Anita Stewart wrote to the audience that she chose the play to have its presidential anecdotes contrast with election-year scrutiny of presidential candidates.

And the play does offer fascinating insights. They include Hoover’s assumption that FDR wouldn’t run because "the American people don’t want half a man for president" and a Supreme Court justice’s prediction that the handicap would be made invisible to the public by FDR’s handlers. Fields throws new light on old stories with FDR’s reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor — he called the Japanese "the little yellow sons-of-bitches" — and generals’ talk of a retreat from California to Chicago.

Fields also gives good presidential advice, showing examples we can only wish for in today’s political environment. Hoover was so rich he gave his presidential salary back to the government. Just imagine! Arnold’s not the only one working for free.

There are contradictions left untouched, however. Under FDR — who appointed a Klansman to the Supreme Court — the atmosphere in the mansion made Fields say, "It felt like the White House belonged to the people — all the people."

One piece of advice would be well heeded in by politicians who only act when forced by public outcry. "A good servant always anticipates the needs of those he’s serving," says Fields, who could be admonishing public servants as much as household ones.

Looking Over the President’s Shoulder
Written by James Still. Directed by Regge Life. With Larry Marshall. At Portland Stage Company, through March 21. Call (207) 774-0465.


• A group of directors, actors, and others convened last week at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, because, in the words of Mel Howards, "We rarely ever talk to each other and we hardly ever meet each other." The group, seven panelists and 10 audience members, all voiced different aims for their work, but found significant areas of common ground in which to potentially cooperate. Some group members plan to attend the "creative economy" conference in Lewiston in May. Others may be planning to lobby the city of Portland for help. "If this city doesn’t have an arts policy, it’s in the Dark Ages," said actor Drew Harris, who urged the group’s members to get city help with space and funding. More meetings are in the works.

• On Tuesday, March 16, explore the complex issue of self-inflicted violence in a workshop performance at Portland Stage Studio Theater at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free, and there will be a short "talkback" with the author and actors after the show.