Actor/playwright Michael Shannon must be drawn to promiscuous 20th century U.S. presidents. Last year he starred as scandal-plagued Warren G. Harding in James Staley’s stage play, “Everyone’s Friend,” at the White Fire Theater. This time out he has penned and is starring in a one-person bio drama that surveys the much spotlighted public and private life of John F. Kennedy. Shannon includes a plethora of information, both documented and surmised, but fails to offer any dramatic enlightenment or insight into the near-mythical persona of our 35th commander in chief. Director Vickery Turner, aided by Darren Staley’s busy sound design, keeps the action moving but cannot compensate for Shannon’s lack of character illumination.
The actor does possess an attractive stage presence. Roaming around an all-purpose set that includes the oval office desk, the White House press room lectern and the famous Kennedy rocking chair, Shannon’s JFK generally speaks directly to the audience, exuding a relaxed, humor-filled conversational tone that alters only slightly when he is giving a press conference or making a television speech. The actor wisely understates Kennedy’s much-impersonated accent, allowing the rhythm of JFK’s speech patterns to convey the Kennedy regionalism.
What is lacking is a sense of an inner life that is driving Kennedy’s decisions, rationalizations, passions and fears. When he addresses the failed Bay of Pigs fiasco with an angry, “How could I have been so stupid,” reflects on his humiliation by Kruschev at the 1961 Vienna summit or casually philosophizes on the Kennedy history of womanizing, Shannon’s JFK is merely providing information without illumination.
What does work is the playwright’s survey of the dynamic era of JFK’s adulthood, including his World War II Navy experiences, his father’s deep agony over the death of older brother Joe Jr. and his intense dislike of Roosevelt, the cold war environment of the 1950s, the 1960s Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, the germinating civil rights movement and the early development of the tragedy known as the Vietnam War.
There is also a titillation to hearing about Kennedy’s well-publicized connection to Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and such mob figures as Sam Giancana. And it is amusing to hear that Kennedy was as nonchalant about Jackie’s improper holidays on billionaire Aristotle Onassis’ yacht as he was about movie star Marilyn Monroe’s indiscriminate desire to serve under the Kennedy men.
By play’s end, Kennedy the public figure has been thoroughly dissected without ever touching on JFK the man.