The one-man play Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, currently playing at Theatre St. Clemens, is written by Richard Hellesen with royal simplicity. It gives the audience an opportunity to dive deep into the life and presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower the President of the United States between 1953 to 1961, played by Tony-Award winner John Rubinstein. Before becoming president, Eisenhower was known for planning and supervising two of the most consequential military campaigns of World War II: Operation Torch in North Africa in 1942–1943 and the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.
In the beginning of the play, setting the tone, Eisenhower at 71 years old appears at home wearing slacks a shirt, and a light cardigan with a copy of the New York TImes Magazine in hand. It is August 1962, a warm day on the sun porch at his farm home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Some books and an easel with a canvas, paint, and a folding chair hint at his love of painting strdddddddddddddddhelped him release tension. This morning, he is not happy. As we listen to him reading from the paper or mumbling into the air, we realize what’s bothering him; the article he is reading is titled “Our Presidents: A Rating by 75 Historians” and the audience soon gathers that he is number twenty-second out of thirty-five. He quotes: “the great American-not great president.”
The play attempts to disprove this “war-hero but mediocre president” fallacy and succeeds. At least in the eyes of the audience who kept their concentration fully on Rubinstein as he delivered a riveting performance. You could hear a pin drop at the play’s most contentious moments and every now and then the audience erupted in laughter over the playwright’s witty interpretations and Rubinstein’s skillful delivery.
In that first scene, Eisenhower’s newspaper reveal is disrupted by Kevin, his book editor, calling to talk to him about his memoir. While this play is fiction it is important to point out that it is adopted from Eisenhower’s memoirs, speeches, and letters.
The simplistic home scenery that is unveiled on stage in the first scene does not change, however, the set design uses videos and photo projections on a screen wall to replay and relate to historical events alongside Eisenhower’s achievements. He continued New Deal programs, expanded Social Security, and played a major role in establishing the infrastructure program the Interstate Highway System in the U.S. and helped rebuild Europe and waged for peace in the Cold War. This balance of history adds tremendously to building our understanding of the older Eisenhower, on stage: strong man, general, and former president.
Apparently, Eisenhower never wanted to be a president. “One day, when I was a boy I was fishing with a friend of mine, we were talking about what we want to be when we grew up. He said he wanted to be the President of the United States. I said I want to be a major-league baseball player. Neither of us got our wish,” he says. That drew laughter from the audience and gave a healthy break to the sad mood he set on stage. The painful thought of his rating continues throughout the play with important events and accomplishments in his life.
And yes, regrets too. Especially the one he can’t forgive himself when he gave in to pressure and compromised his integrity. It seemed to follow him to his grave.
The tone of sadness, perseverance, and integrity reminds me of another one-man play that I reviewed in November “Remember This: The Story of Jan Karski,” played beautifully by David Srathairn. Karski was a Polish diplomat during World War II who stood up against the Nazis. His story is a lesson in humanity that is so important for all of us to adopt and lead by before the destruction in the world overcomes us all.
In the beginning of the play, Eisenhower prays:
“Give us the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land…May cooperation be the mutual aim of those who, under our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths, so that all may work for the good of our beloved country. The strength of free people lies in unity; their danger, in discord…For this truth must be clear before us: whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America”
In fact, he asks us all not just to pray, but to do. Today, like in his times, we need to unite with the truth. The play posits Eisenhower as a president that chooses country over party; his ranking jumped through the years and in 2022 he was ranked the fifth most important president. Judging from the play he is number one.
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground runs at Theatre at St Clements on 423 West 46th Street through August 20, 2023.