Arts

Review: ‘Eisenhower’ Is a Thoughtful Triumph of Politics & Philosophy at the Rubicon

It’s a rarity when only one performer, with no safety nets, manages to not only hold the audience’s attention for two hours, but does so in a manner that is thoroughly edifying and meaningful. Such is the case for Tony Award-winner John Rubinstein who is a consummate master of his craft on stage in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground — a marvelously compelling and completely veracious exploration of the legacy of the United States’ 34th president. As the third production of the Rubicon Theatre Company’s silver anniversary season, the one-man play written by Richard Hellesen and directed by Peter Ellenstein is required viewing for both those who are well-versed in Ike’s contributions to history and for those who have much to gain by becoming acquainted with his bigger-picture philosophies.

John Rubinstein in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. Photo credit: Lore Photography

Having initially world-premiered at Los Angeles’ Theatre West in 2022, and benefiting from the momentum of a recently completed Off-Broadway run last November, Eisenhower — the play and protagonist alike — has much to say over a period of just one day. Set in August of 1962 on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, PA, no more than a year and a half since the conclusion of his second term, the premise is spurred by the inciting incident: New York Times Magazine has published the results of a poll by 75 historians who have ranked Ike an ignominious No. 22 out of 35 presidents.

The incredulous Eisenhower, who has the house to himself before the grandkids arrive in the evening, has decided to do something uncharacteristic of himself: directly counter the criticism. And since the former president is already in the midst of working with biographer Kevin McCann on a book about his presidency, which is feared to carry little interest compared to the previous offering about war stories, Eisenhower has nothing to lose by speaking his mind into a Dictaphone to be later transcribed.

John Rubinstein in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. Photo credit: Lore Photography

The effect of this is two-fold: One, the audience feels as if they’re looking through the hourglass of history to surreptitiously listen to Eisenhower’s rebuttal and, two, there’s a seemingly opposing impression that visitors are actively present in the luminary’s very own living room, functioning as a sounding board for the point-by-point remarks that are consecutively made. Consisting of a 50/50 split between Eisenhower’s own quotes and Hellesen’s ingenious word maneuverings, which echo the essence of Ike’s beliefs and fit seamlessly within the format of a two-act structure, there is an impressive resonance in each of the spoken-from-the-heart retellings comprising Eisenhower’s vindication.

How could there not be an attempt at exoneration when the article unfairly calls Eisenhower “mediocre,” “inept,” “a great American but not a great president,” “unwilling to be a fighter,” and then qualifies its stance with myopic justifications like “great ones took the side of liberalism and kept the country out of war”?

This prompts the almost 72-year-old who never desired the military until he came to love it, nor the presidency until the threat of American isolationism loomed, to break the definition of greatness down to its constituent parts. The concept of “greatness” is not necessarily dependent upon any individual glory but the aim of working toward a common purpose and goal — an ethos that influenced much of Eisenhower’s decision-making.

John Rubinstein in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. Photo credit: Lore Photography

After all, as the play highlights, Eisenhower — technically a Republican — was fiscally responsible, established an interstate highway, believed women should be educated, desegregated the military, added two states, signed off on NASA, and espoused a vision of freedom that wasn’t exclusively enclosed within America’s borders. And perhaps most eye-opening as a diametrical opposite to modern-day conservatism, Eisenhower saw through the “taking sides” trap, which is why he was a proponent of a Venn diagram-intersecting middle ground that steered clear of extremes and urged citizens to focus more on what they were mutually for than against. His illustrious military career, from West Point to five-star General in World War II, didn’t instill a blind faith about the goings-on of the armed forces, either. At his core, he was a pacifist who wasn’t bashful about railing against the dangers of the military-industrial complex.

Would-be attendees will also be reassured to find that, despite the elaboration upon Eisenhower’s strengths, the play doesn’t omit his regrets and mistakes, providing an honest portrayal beginning with his upbringing in Abilene, KS, to his parents David and Ida, five brothers, first child “Icky” with wife Mamie, his role during McCarthyism, and his mishandling of an incident over Russia in the course of the Cold War.

John Rubinstein in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. Photo credit: Lore Photography

Ike was far from perfect; however, he was correct about not grandstanding and prioritizing the health of the nation over his personal accomplishments as president, even if his less showy approach was perceived as passive in his heyday. As the eponymous figure of the production, Rubinstein charismatically conveys Eisenhower’s overall contentment with his footprint in the annals of yesteryear, commanding an uncontestable reverence with each step, glance, gesture, and phrase. Dressed in sartorial clothes becoming a statesman (costume consultant is Sarah G. Conly), Rubinstein takes his task and countless pages of lines ultra-seriously, alternating between a gentle and passionate presentation, earning laughs with well-timed quips about the placement of other presidents in the magazine.

Director Ellenstein’s handiwork can also be sensed given how precisely continuous the pacing is, ensuring that no talking point lingers for too long so as to keep observers unfailingly engrossed without interruption. Additionally, the set design by Michael Deegan is purposely intimate, featuring a few of Eisenhower’s sofa chairs, desks, a bookcase, golf clubs, and a painting easel (Eisenhower was an avid golfer and artist). Esquire Jauchem’s lighting warmly underscores the respectability of Eisenhower, and Joe Huppert’s sound and especially projections (of Ike’s loved ones and those who significantly impacted him) help the audience to better visualize and appreciate the real-life merit of the myriad accounts. Last but not least is technical director Anthony Colombo whose holistic expertise guarantees Eisenhower‘s flawless presentation at the Rubicon.

John Rubinstein in Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, CA. Photo credit: Lore Photography

When so much research and painstaking attention to detail is at stake, most plays have difficulty living up to, and reflecting, the “whole-truthed” complexities that characterize real people — ordinary, famous, or infamous — in their everyday lives. Dwight D. Eisenhower, certainly, is a person whose actions and inactions, scrutinized meticulously then as they are now by historians, will continue to ring throughout the passage of time. Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground — bulwarked by its writing, directing, and unremitting investment by its celebrated actor — is a play that understands 34’s value in relation to the evolving lens of perception and as an antidote against contemporary divisive politics.

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground runs through Sunday, March 10th. For more information and to purchase tickets to the production at the Rubicon Theatre Company, visit rubicontheatre.org.

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