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Keith Randolph Smith in
Looking Over the President's Shoulder
(Photo © Meghan Kriegel)
The set, sound, and lighting are the main events at Merrimack Repertory Theatre's production of the one-man play Looking Over the President's Shoulder. James Still's regional theater favorite about the butler who served four U.S. presidents is a bland collection of historical facts with more emphasis on the White House building and place settings than development of the hero's inner life or his unique perspective on world events.

The protagonist, Alonzo Fields (Keith Randolph Smith), is clearly an intelligent and multitalented man, but the playwright gives him nothing to say about the bombing of Hiroshima, the end of the Second World War, and other pivotal moments he heard discussed in the White House. The script treats his personal dramas superficially, as well. As he leaves the White House after 21 years, the man who wanted to continue his voice studies at the New England Conservatory concludes that timing the proper serving of guests is like orchestrating music. In sum, Fields seems to be rationalizing his missed opportunities.

If audience members come to this show expecting insights on Herbert Hoover's bungled handling of the protest encampment of impoverished World War I veterans or gossip about the woman FDR was with when he died, they will be disappointed. Fields does describe a top-secret trip to Florida to wait on Winston Churchill, during which the alcohol-dependent prime minister jokes, "I hope you'll come to my defense if I'm ever accused of being a teetotaler."

Among the parade of facts, we learn that the White House staff had nicknames for all of the presidents (they called Hoover "Smiley" because he "never did"). The tireless Eleanor Roosevelt was dubbed "Alice in Wonderland" because she was "always on the go and in a world of her own." We also hear that a newly inaugurated Harry Truman personally thanked the cook for a fine birthday cake and continued throughout his presidency to "show an appreciation that never waned." The Indiana-bred Fields admits to a preference for this president and his family; their straightforward Midwestern style and their manner of treating a man as a man and not as a servant made Fields feel that he understood Truman best of the four presidents he served -- and that he was understood by him. However, he sees the Roosevelts as aristocrats who were ambivalent about civil rights. For example, they hired black staff members but didn't let them eat with the white servants at their home in Hyde Park, New York; and when Roosevelt weighed the appointment of former Ku Klux Klan member Hugo Black to the Supreme Court, racist comments were tolerated in White House discussions.

Seret Scott makes her Merrimack directorial debut with this production. Polly Byers is the costume designer and Jeff Jones is responsible for the evocative sound effects. The scenic design of Anna Louizos and the lighting of John Ambrosone work hand in hand to provide some of the depth and polish that are lacking elsewhere. The set, all in browns, at first seems drab -- but there are layers to be discovered. Behind lighted panels, Smith as Fields moves gracefully through his house tour. Slide projections of presidential portraits serve their terms on the rear wall. Panels on an apron jutting into the audience light up and become lockers, kitchens, or radios announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor or Roosevelt's death. Dappled light throws leafy patterns on the foreground as Fields awaits the bus that will take him back to Boston forever.

The Merrimack, a vital theatrical presence in Lowell, is to be commended for frequently bringing shows about African Americans to the Boston area -- and not only during Black History Month. But there are deeper plays to choose from. Also, why cast a Broadway actor with obvious gifts but limited time for the prodigious task of memorizing stories and statistics that have no real dramatic arc to aid him? No actor can really get into his character until all of his lines are down pat; frequent reference to a notepad that Fields uses for recording his recollections suggests that Smith needs help in jogging his own memory. There are any number of local black actors with shorter résumés but outstanding ability who might have had the time to find deeper layers in Fields despite the shortcomings of the script.

Still, bravo to the Merrimack for continuing to seek out plays that are not being done at every other theater in New England. And it must be noted that the opening night audience gave Keith Randolph Smith a standing ovation.

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