American Blues Theater's Chicago premiere of ensemble member Rick Cleveland's 2015 play, about the April 27, 1994, meeting of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton at former president Richard Nixon's funeral—the first time in history five U.S. presidents had met together at a public event—would make a great field trip for a high school class in American history. The play packs five great character studies into one itty-bitty (90-minute) show and is full of fun facts that might give you an edge on an AP exam: for example, the nugget that Gerald Ford, best known for his 1974 pardoning of Nixon, kept a quotation from a 1915 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Burdick v. United States) in his wallet stating that accepting a pardon implies a confession of guilt.
It is a testament to Cleveland's abilities as a writer, and those of director Marty Higginbotham's A-list ensemble, that each president in this play looks, acts, and talks like a real, flawed human being, with his own insights, memories, and emotional baggage, and not like a rehashing of well-worn caricatures or the mildewed residue of a once carefully crafted public persona. James Leaming is particularly moving as an affable but visibly senile Reagan. (This funeral was his last major public appearance; that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease would be announced later the same year.)
In the end, though, the evening feels more like a museum-worthy historic reenactment—memorializing a time when the country was (or at least seemed) calmer, saner, and significantly less fractured—than a fully engaging drama. It's entertaining for history buffs, for sure, but perhaps too reverential and cerebral for anyone who's not a student of late 20th-century American politics. v