It has been widely reported that, given his penchant for controversy, President Bush looks to his polite, non-threatening wife to soften his image, often referring to Laura Bush as “my secret weapon.” Say what you want about W, but he knows a thing or two about PR.
My Secret Weapon is also the title of Rhubarb Theatre Company’s new production, a dramatized glimpse inside the White House walls, where, away from the glare of the TV lights, presidential wives are free to be themselves and talk candidly. Playwright Carol Caldwell combines credible setup and reasonable conjecture about the private conversations of recent first ladies Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, as if we were eavesdropping on their unguarded moments.
Caldwell developed and completed the script in Nashville in just the past six weeks. The four monologues—each about 15 minutes long and all enacted with thoughtful craft and subtle variety by Trish Moalla—take place in various rooms around the White House from 1987 to 2005. Caldwell doesn’t tip her political hand, and how the characterizations are perceived will be colored by whatever leanings viewers bring to the proposition. She conceives her subjects with perspicacity and a keen eye for the telling psychological detail. Whether or not the result jives precisely with the truth, it is thoroughly involving and believable.
My Secret Weapon is chock-full of juicy speculation; to discuss the particulars might spoil things for potential theatergoers. But here’s a little tease:
• An all-business Nancy Reagan consults intimately on the phone with her astrologer. (Her real-life astrologer, Joan Quigley, apparently was a lot more influential in the Reagan White House than even those who knew about her would have guessed.) Iran-Contra and Ollie North are topics for discussion, though, strangely, chief of staff Donald Regan, Nancy’s No. 1 antagonist in her struggle to orchestrate her husband’s daily schedule, is not.
• Barbara Bush, pearls and all, converses frankly with an unidentified woman; it’s most likely a reference to Jennifer Fitzgerald, the woman long rumored to be Poppy Bush’s extramarital confidante (and possibly more).
• Hillary Clinton has a hopeful sit-down chat with Bill circa 1993, which turns painful as she ponders his penchant for philandering.
• Laura Bush steadfastly makes up her face at a dressing table, dispensing Stepford-like “good behavior” tips, cautionary aphorisms and health advice to one of her rambunctious daughters. These moments are a study in the neurosis of perfectionism.
Caldwell has done her homework, and the script is consistent enough with our knowledge of the first ladies’ lives to be compelling. More interestingly, the author’s extrapolation leads us into areas where cold-hearted dragon ladies, doting grandmothers, ambitious eggheads and demure Southern beauties aren’t always what they seem.
It’s hard to know where playwright Caldwell leaves off and actress Moalla takes over, and that’s a tribute to everyone involved, including director Julie Alexander, who also nurtured the script along. Moalla has developed into an exceptionally fine character actress in recent years, and taking on these diverse roles seems to suit her growing abilities well. She eschews any overt attempt to look like the first ladies, but through mannerisms, vocal inflections and some strategic costuming, she gets the point across with distinction.
My Secret Weapon could well be the first contemporary dramatic work exploring the lives of first ladies in this manner; given the public’s perennial fascination with White House affairs (of every kind), it’s quite conceivable that this homegrown play could have a life after its brief run at the Darkhorse Theater.