A dark account of the rise and fall of President Warren Gamaliel Harding, James Staley’s first play is a mixed bag of historical reportage with uneven portrayals. Director Vickery Turner fails to have a firm hand on the proceedings making this mostly a dud.
Play opens in 1923 on Harding’s tour, designed to bolster his popularity that’s threatened by the scandals riddling his administration. Harding’s right-hand man, Harry Dougherty (an excellent turn by Robert F. Lyons), announces the arrival of the president in San Francisco before story flashes back to 1891 to examine what got the president to this point.
Harding was the youthful editor of the Marion, Ohio, newspaper when he was courted by divorcee Florence (Marcia Rodd), who proffered a dowry and ambition that led to marriage.
Shortly after their wedding, the young and married Carrie Phillips (Amy Lindsay) develops a romance with Harding, leading to an ongoing affair. Later, perky teen groupie Nan Britton (Ranjani Brow), 30 years Harding’s junior, finds herself pregnant by him.
Device of blackouts separating short vignettes with occasional exposition divides the play into opportunities for well-meaning applause, yet it hampers the rhythms necessary to keep the flow of the story moving.
Uneven performances, especially from Rodd, whose Florence ranged from lame to inflammatory, also prevent the play from ever getting fully up to speed. Flat Midwest accents were attempted by some, while one or two of the cast opted for more refined speech. This is unfortunate, as the simple set designed by Staley and excellent period costumes by Heather Porsche Bre give the play a decent start out of the blocks.