It sounds odd to say that Dwight Eisenhower may be having a moment, but welcome to the great American pastime of revisionism. Author Jon Meacham is busy at work on a biography of the 34 th president and now, actor John Rubinstein is starring in a one-man show called “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground.”
It officially opens June 13 and will play at least seven weeks at the Theatre at St. Clements.“Richard Hellesen is a wonderful playwright and found a way to not make this a history lecture, but a day in this man’s life,” says Rubinstein. It is a day during which we see Eisenhower reassessing his own reputation, and also warning about what is coming.
“You’ll be surprised how prescient he was in discussing what he knew would be a fragile future,” says Rubinstein. “Here, after all, was the man who won World War II militarily, and yet he later warned us about the ‘military industrial complex’. He knew that wasn’t the end of the story.”
The play itself manages to catch our particular moment. Says playwright Hellesen,“despite the Cold War, McCarthyism and the start of the Civil Rights movement, Eisenhower believed in democracy. On our stage, he says ‘some days it feels like democracy is going to have a hell of a time persevering. But...if we're going to leave our young people something better, then we just can't be complacent.’”
The man portraying him definitely believes Eisenhower has been under-appreciated. “So many think of him as a grandfatherly type, not particularly eloquent, who played a lot of golf,” Rubinstein says. He is not alone. “Ike was seen as boring and dowdy, especially when JFK came in,” says historian Jonathan Alter. “And he remained so until Trump made us realize there was a time when we had a Republican president who was decent and often wise, and a Republican Party that—for all its attachment to country club values—was in the mainstream of American life.” Audiences will hear Ike talk about his family and some of the issues he had to deal with from the White House: including the Suez Canal and the McCarthy hearings. One person we won’t hear about is his Veep, Richard Nixon. “No,” says Rubinstein,” once he enters into the picture, our minds go to Checkers (his dog) and Watergate, (his ultimate scandal) of course. And that’s not what this show is about.”
What the show is about is hard work for the man at its center. One-character dramatic pieces are described by actors–who dare to do them–as both exhilarating and lonely. Rubinstein agrees. “There aren’t even any runner ups,” he says. “You show up alone, you’re in the dressing room alone, you’re on that stage alone.” He won a Tony when he appeared on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God,” opposite a woman dealing with her deafness. “I spoke my lines and hers and the only challenge was figuring out when to swallow,” he recalls. “Still, there were other people on stage with me.”
The actor also composes music—his father was named Artur, after all—and has had a long and varied career. Broadway also included the leading role in “Pippin,” and on television there were countless performances, including five seasons among the celebrated cast of “Family.” Speaking of which, he has had three marriages and five children and says he made many decisions along the way based on wanting to have enough time for them. All-together, John Rubinstein, now 76, says, “If I had to sum up my career, I’d say the word is ‘lucky.’ But every actor finishes a job and then worries when or if he’ll get the next one.”
He says there were parts he wanted that “bad agenting” got in the way of. But then he met and worked with amazing pros along the way: like Angela Lansbury—who invited his relatives to visit the set when he guested on “Murder She Wrote.’ And Mike Nichols, for whom he read for “The Graduate.”
“Obviously, it turned out that Mike was looking for a very different kind of leading man,” he says of the role that famously went to a young Dustin Hoffman to play 21 year old recent college grad Benjamin Braddock opposite Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson. “But six years later, he remembered me and didn’t even make me audition for a part. That is a classy guy.”
Michele Willens reports on theatre and is the author of From Mouseketeers to Menopause.
“Ike was seen as boring and dowdy, especially when JFK came in, And he remained so until Trump made us realize there was a time when we had a Republican president who was decent and often wise, and a Republican Party that—for all its attachment to country club values—was in the mainstream of American life.” historian Jonathan Alter