Reviews

Eisenhower: This Piece Of Ground ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

June 21, 2023: There was a time early in the 1960s when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower became a subject of the “wind-up doll” joke fad, which made fun of celebrities. In addition to such ripostes as “wind up the Liz Taylor doll and it wrecks two marriages” and “wind up the Ed Sullivan doll and it just stands there” were “wind up the Eisenhower doll and it does nothing for eight years” and “wind up the Eisenhower doll and it sits on its can.” Well, as Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, a one-man show starring Tony winner John Rubinstein (Children of a Lesser God) as the 34th POTUS, reminds us, the former general who commanded the Allied forces in Europe during World War II did a lot more during his tenure than just sit on his can.

John Rubinstein in “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground”.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

June 21, 2023: There was a time early in the 1960s when former President Dwight D. Eisenhower became a subject of the “wind-up doll” joke fad, which made fun of celebrities. In addition to such ripostes as “wind up the Liz Taylor doll and it wrecks two marriages” and “wind up the Ed Sullivan doll and it just stands there” were “wind up the Eisenhower doll and it does nothing for eight years” and “wind up the Eisenhower doll and it sits on its can.” Well, as Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, a one-man show starring Tony winner John Rubinstein (Children of a Lesser God) as the 34th POTUS, reminds us, the former general who commanded the Allied forces in Europe during World War II did a lot more during his tenure than just sit on his can.

Richard Hellesen’s well-crafted, excellently acted biodrama, originally staged at LA’s Theatre West last fall, can’t help but lean a bit toward the hagiographic. It avoids most negative criticism of the man, never alluding, for example, to the rumors about his close relationship with his wartime secretary, Kay Summersby, which some thought—it remains speculation—crossed appropriate boundaries. But this can be excused since its premise is that Ike, using a tape recorder, is dictating, reluctantly, his memoirs; no one (at that time) would expect a former president to mention his peccadillos, even to deny them. 

John Rubinstein

Eisenhower takes place in 1962, when JFK was in the White House, and his predecessor was 71. Michael Deegan’s set, effectively lit by Esquire Jauchem, is a semblance of Ike’s living room at his home on 190 acres of active farmland in Gettysburg, PA. His beloved wife, Mamie, is in town with his aide, shopping, allowing him to ramble into the recorder. Occasionally, he talks on the phone with his editor, Mamie, or the aide during this memory-challenging, 110-minute monologue covering two acts. 

Hellesen’s heavily researched script, efficiently staged by Peter Ellenstein, has a clever hook for getting Ike to spill the beans; he’s upset by a New York Times article in which 75 historians ranked all presidents by their level of greatness: “Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure.” To his consternation, his own placement is 22nd among 34 (it was too early to quantify JFK’s greatness), with even Herbert Hoover and Andrew Johnson ahead of him. It turns out, in fact, that the number of presidents considered could technically be reduced to 31, making Ike’s position even weaker, even though, like Madison and Grant, he was deemed a great American if not a great president.

John Rubinstein

The former president’s discourse, then, allows him to attempt rectifying the record, including taking potshots at some of those higher on the list than he. He discusses his, at first, penny-pinching upbringing (Texas-born, Kansas-raised), his parents, his religion (his mother was a Jehovah’s Witness), his education (West Point), his brilliant military career (an ironic twist for the son of a Witness), his successful brothers, his post-marital family (including the death in infancy of his first son), his involvement in politics (despite claiming to be non-political), his presidential run, his political philosophy, and his considerable presidential achievements. A principle theme concerns what “greatness” in this context actually means. 

Act one provides so much exposition, platitudes, anecdotage, maxims (often handed down from his father), explanations of his love of golf and painting, etc., it grows a bit ho-hum tedious. We do get a capsule survey of his foremost accomplishments during his eight years in power, though. These include the gigantic Interstate system; his antipathy toward what he, memorably, dubbed the “military-industrial complex”; his ending of the Korean War; his pro-peace, anti-war philosophy; his careful shepherding of an economy that put the national budget four billion in the black; his signing off on NASA (thereby encouraging the space race); his significant advances on behalf of civil rights for African Americans, and so on. For history buffs, this is familiar territory, but it’s important to be reminded of it. Which is not to deny its lack of dramatic drive in presenting material that might as easily have been gleaned from a book; some much needed passion, however, is found in the more emotionally absorbing act two.

John Rubinstein

In that second act, as we become increasingly familiar with the man’s personality, and appreciate the central feature of his politics, its moderation, we increasingly recognize what an ocean of difference there is between this humane, compromise-seeking man of principle and the divisiveness of a particular leader in our own times. Not being especially political, Eisenhower was rather ambivalent about party affiliation: “I wasn’t going to be called a Republican or a Democrat ’til I knew that one of ’em, at least, stood for things I thought were important to this country. Whatever the party, if you don’t have your foundation in causes that are right, and moral, you’re not a political party at all– you’re just a conspiracy to seize power.” 

He even dismisses words like conservative and liberal as being undefinable, a questionable belief today’s partisan audiences will likely take with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to listen to him without comparing his character, integrity, and moral and physical courage to the aberration that became president 45. 

John Rubinstein

Act two’s most dramatically engaging subjects concern such things as Eisenhower’s conflict with isolationists like presidential hopeful Sen. Robert Taft regarding the leadership of NATO, and his beefs with Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Sen. Joe McCarthy. In 1948, Democratic President Truman, fearful of the power-hungry MacArthur, whose followers were “extremists masquerading as conservatives,” even asked Eisenhower to run for the presidency as a Democrat against the other general, although Truman eventually ran himself. Eisenhower also opposed the overreach of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts despite his own heavily anti-communism policies. 

John Rubinstein only vaguely looks like Eisenhower, lacking his military bearing and, at 5’8”, stature; Ike was 5’10”. He actually more closely resembles, facially, at least, Pres. Biden. As the performance progresses, and he ambles around the living room, sometimes with a drink in hand, he tells his story in a semblance of Eisenhower’s mildly folksy, Midwesterner’s way, gradually taking on something of his character’s aura. You come to appreciate Eisenhower’s casually modest demeanor, and thoughtful, sometimes eloquent, rhetoric. There are few fireworks displayed in this finely modulated performance, but you can feel the sense of honesty, fair play, and idealism coursing through his bones. 

John Rubinstein

Throughout the performance, the upstage area is used for projections (by Joe Huppert, who also provides the sound design), both of the farmland outside and of images illustrating the narrative. At the end, later assessments of Eisenhower’s relative greatness roll like credits, showing his number climbing ever higher in the rankings. If what we’ve seen during this play is an authentic representation, then it’s time for a new wind-up doll joke. How about “wind up the Eisenhower doll and it kicks Trump in the can”?

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through July 30, 2023
Photography: Maria Baranova