Living memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower is growing fainter with every year. But “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” starring a perfectly cast John Rubinstein, brings our 34th president back to life in a straightforward biographical drama that’s filled with timely political lessons from a leader who strove to put country over party.
The play by Richard Hellesen, which had its world premiere in October at Theatre West in a presentation created by New L.A. Repertory Company and is now playing at the Hudson MainStage Theatre, wears its earnestness on its sleeve. A whiff of Wikipedia has proven to be no deterrent. The production, directed by Peter Ellenstein, has been extended through Jan. 22 and there’s even talk of an off-Broadway run.
It’s heartening to see audiences flock to a work that takes an educational approach to American history. Citizens still want to learn about their government and the difficult choices their elected officials have been forced to make in response to crises, domestic and foreign.
But the main reason to see “Eisenhower” is the solid performance by Rubinstein, who assumes the role with such concentrated ease that it’s as if a figure known to some only through grainy news footage and the term “military industrial complex” (which he famously issued as a warning) has been allowed a temporary reprieve from death to talk some sense into a nation that has lost its way.
There’s a homespun stateliness to Rubinstein’s portrayal of Ike, who in the study of his post-presidency home in Gettysburg, Penn., reviews the central episodes of his life. An old-fashioned story, as American as apple pie, the saga begins at the beginning, at the sternly loving family center of his boyhood days that led up to his education at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Heroism isn’t the point of the survey that follows. The military career of Eisenhower, who served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War II and who attained the five-star rank of of General of the Army, is discussed in relationship to his work as a politician determined to secure European peace by standing against isolationism and the America First movement.
The frame of the play is rudimentary. Eisenhower is ruing his low ranking in a list of American presidents that a group of 75 historians has devised for a New York Times feature. He decides to tell his own story to set the record straight.
There’s a formulaic stiffness to this biographical recap, which seems built more around a lesson plan than a dramatic plot. The speechifying tone of the language Hellesen offers Eisenhower precludes any sense of intimacy. The public man takes precedence over the private one in a production that compounds this effect with a staging that resembles a class exhibit or diorama.
But Rubinstein, who won a Tony for his performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” delivers the social studies goods with aplomb. He deserves a more complex portrait but delves wholeheartedly into the political conundrums of a president who in the simple act of owning his own mistakes sets an important example of the kind of leadership that’s in too short supply these days.
‘Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground’
Where: Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 22.
Contact: onstage411.com/eisenhower or newlarep.org
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes, including one intermission.
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Charles McNulty is the theater critic of the Los Angeles Times. He received his doctorate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism from the Yale School of Drama.
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