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Give Em Hell Harry!

Bix Barnaba gives a cheerful and persuasive performance as former U.S. President Harry S. Truman. logo
Bix Barnaba in Give Em Hell Harry!
(© Doug Engalla)
Too bad Bix Barnaba can't do what the man he's impersonating did in 1948. If he could, he'd be making a whistle-stop tour of the country with Samuel Gallu's Give Em Hell Harry!, the solo show he's resurrected about straight-forward, no-nonsense President Harry S. Truman, now at the Theatre at St. Luke's. For the benefit of voters craving reminders about what represents top quality in a presidential candidate, Barnaba is giving 'em cheerful hell -- and looks to be having as much fun as the man in whose shoes he's supposedly walking and whose well-tailored suits supposedly he's wearing.

Truman -- at whom the brickbat "flip-flop" was never thrown -- made any number of blunt and well-publicized pronouncements during his life, many of them repeated by Barnaba, who bears a passable enough physical and vocal resemblance to the oval office occupant from 1945 to 1952. One of the no-holds-barred comments many ticket-buying citizens may find uncomfortably pertinent goes: "There is nothing worse than a liar in public office, because the people might believe him, and if they catch a fellow like that, they should give him about as much compassion as he gave the Constitution of the United States."

Gallu sets most of Truman's fast-paced reminiscences in the Oval Office, as Barnaba circles his desk or frequently sits at it while welcoming, among unseen others, Herbert Hoover and a bevy of union officials. He carries on phone conversations with generals and secretaries, writes letters (one to a critic who lambasted concertizing daughter Margaret) and tells mildly ribald jokes for every occasion.

Sometimes wandering into the past to recall speeches he made when still a senator or jump-cutting to Independence, Missouri to mow his front lawn, Truman gabs, most often briefly, about his presidency, acknowledging it was "accidental" -- not something he ever sought as a former haberdasher. Most of the time, though, Gallu presents a Truman whom historians corroborate as possessing iron-clad convictions that included immovable belief in decency, plain-speaking, the law, and the Constitution.

Barnaba is a quick-to-laugh Truman, particularly in the first half of this two-act backward glance. Only twice does he get exercised. The first sequence that has Barnaba circling the stage stormily involves General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, who becomes the occasion for a midnight stroll across the front of the stage -- as if the controversial old soldier were present. MacArthur's dismissal after clashing publicly and privately with Truman over Korean War policy was eventual big-type headline news and lends itself to fiery dramatics here. The second extended segment has Barnaba scorching the air as Truman rants against Senator Joseph McCarthy and his assault on the Bill of Rights.

By the time Truman takes a late-show constitutional with cane in hand in deference to one of the Prexy's most famous traditions, Barnaba has offered the man's thoughts about Franklin Roosevelt, Ike Eisenhower, George Marshall, John F. Kennedy and dad Joe, Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon (not favorable), the then Lady Astor and inserted a few mentions of first lady Bess, whom more than once he call "the boss."

In what seems Gallu's most conspicuous lapse, Truman deals with the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a couple of sentences. Aware of the possibilities that a million civilian lives can be lost, he mentions he has "no options," and that's that for an episode that lends itself to a meaty full-throttle drama.

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