It's been nearly 20 years since Richard Nixon's death, but his tainted legacy isn't likely to fade from memory anytime soon. In some ways, British playwright Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon assures continued demonization of the former president disgraced by the Watergate scandal more than 40 years ago.
First a play and then a film, Morgan's script pits Nixon against his interviewer, TV host David Frost, at a pivotal time for two men seeking career rejuvenation. Whether or not Frost's now-historic series of 1977 sit-downs with Nixon portrayed a beaten and self-loathing former leader of the free world depends on one's point of view. As veteran political writer Elizabeth Drew stated on Huffington Post regarding the Ron Howard-directed movie version: "Literary license in the name of drama or entertainment is one thing; the issue comes down to what one is taking license with, and the degree of license being taken."
We'll leave the absolute truth-seeking in the hands of geeky political wonks and historians. But there's certainly no lack of theatricality in Morgan's work, now being staged by Studio Tenn Theatre Company with the highest professionalism.
Director Matt Logan's awareness of the times — the late 1970s, the days of Telex! — is cleverly reflected via music, costumes and atmospheric film clips. The various scenes move through Frost's fairly glamorous (if slightly faded) show-biz world until they settle firmly in Nixon's California and a makeshift television studio complete with cameras and a large video screen that beams constant close-ups of the dark and seemingly desperate ex-president.
Surely Nixon haters will appreciate the unsettling portrait of the former president, who offhandedly asks Frost an inappropriate question about his sex life, or phones him late at night, inebriated and in confessional mode. But perhaps the order of names in the title should be reversed. Because no matter where Morgan's snappy text takes us, it is Nixon who compels.
In a sublime bit of casting, Logan tapped Nashville theater veteran Robert Kiefer as his Tricky Dick. Kiefer, an actor and director who first worked in Music City in the 1980s, hasn't been onstage in a play in 15 years. You'd sure never know it. His Nixon is thoroughly unnerving, wholly credible and most of all, forceful. It's not an impersonation, either. Kiefer hints at the brooding Nixon we think we know, but somehow he finds a distinctly separate individual beneath the layers — one deeply flawed but possibly worthy of our sympathy.
Brent Maddox offers an equally convincing performance as Frost, especially as he fights off the criticism of his interviewing skills from his small team of handlers. Those excellent actors include Ross Bolen (who narrates a lot of the action as historian Jim Reston), Corey Caldwell and Nat McIntyre. Mike Baum staunchly portrays Nixon's protective adviser, Jack Brennan, and Emily Tello Speck contributes a chic turn as Frost's socialite friend, Caroline Cushing.
Led by Kiefer's startling work in the role of a lifetime, Studio Tenn delivers captivating theater and thought-provoking reflection on a controversial American political figure.
During Black History Month four years ago, SistaStyle Productions debuted Mary McCallum's Fly, Girl, a well-received dramatic account of the life of Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American aviator. For this year's observance, McCallum presents Six Triple Eight, an exploration of the little-known 6888th Central Postal Battalion, an all-black Women's Army Corps unit charged with helping the military catch up on overseas mail delivery to the Gis during World War II.
The 6888th's mission provides the framework for the personal stories of four enlistees, each with different heartaches and desires. McCallum's script benefits from well-researched historical perspective, and the show's best technical contribution — rear-projected archival photos and video — strongly reflects that overview.
The characters' personal stories, however fictionalized, ring with truth, and McCallum's mixed cast of veteran performers and newer faces generally relates events with spirit. In particular, TSU freshman Candace-Omnira LaFayette radiates charm as the lovestruck Sammy. Her warm scenes with Shawn Whitsell engage the softer edges of the piece, while the other enlisted ladies — Felicia Brown, Naeaidria Michelle Callihan and Meleisha Edwards — deal with more painful issues. Molly Breen and Tammi Daniels Woods fill out the cast as the tough-minded WAC brass. (McCallum's work mostly rides on its Everyman human dramas, but the playwright includes illustrative episodes of racism as well.)
The staging could benefit from tighter direction, but for a play on its maiden voyage, Six Triple Eight is a worthy effort that holds much promise. It continues through March 8 at the Darkhorse Theater.
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