By Eric Uhlfelder
A play remembering the 1968 presidential campaign, how the country has changed and how it hasn’t.
Wandering several blocks west of Times Square to an old church might seem an odd place to find a tale about a presidential campaign fifty years on. But this choice of venue to host an escape from today’s cynical political discord is inspired, recalling a time when leaders were not afraid to think boldly and morally.
The playwright and sole performer, David Arrow, who in certain light bears a striking resemblance to Robert Kennedy, developed this monologue soon after having performed the lead in Jack Holmes’ acclaimed one-man play RFK.
The key difference between the two productions: RFK was a broad range of vignettes structured as tragedy; Arrow’s vision focuses on the last three months of his 1968 campaign for the Democratic nomination for president as he emerged from his family’s long shadows and found his voice. Arrow’s inspiration: a response to the crassness of the 2016 Presidential campaign and the administration that followed in recalling the lost art of speech and ideas.
Arrow’s play is all about the words: narratives describing various key moments, references to Bernard Shaw and Aeschylus, and snippets of Kennedy’s speeches, revealing a timeless compassion and understanding one would be shocked and inspired to hear today.
“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge… All the phrases which have meant so much to Americans—peace and progress, justice and compassion, leadership and idealism – often sound not like stirring reminders of our nation, but call forth the cynical laughter of our young. Not because they do not believe them, but because they do not think our leaders mean them.”
Eric Nightengales’ direction merges a changing panoply of black-and-white images and newspaper headlines projected on the back of the stage with historical soundtracks that surrounded Kennedy’s visits across the nation. He switches between spot and stage lighting to distinguish speeches from narrative. The proscenium stage is framed by a collage of Kennedy placards. And he employs the tumbling letters of a railroad station departure board to indicate the various whistle stops Kennedy made as he crossed the country to his final stop in Los Angeles.
The intimacy of St. Clement’s brings the audience right into the mix, from his stumps at various universities, a visit to an Indian reservation, to a black ghetto in Indianapolis where he announced to an unsuspecting crowd the assassination of Martin Luther King. Turns out, Indianapolis was the only city that didn’t burn that night.
Arrow fails to consistently hold Bobby’s heavy Boston twang. And a commitment to authenticity may have prevented him from more effectively modulating his voice at the expense of dramatic effect. But he delivers an impassioned performance, tracking deftly back and forth across the stage to help convey the various venues to which he takes the audience.
At the end of the 90-minute production, Edward Kennedy issues the most poignant, eloquent coda to the campaign and to his younger sibling’s life: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade opened November 8 at the Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street, and runs through December 9th.