James Still’s one-man show about butler Alonzo Fields, who served four presidents between 1931 and 1953, spotlights a little-known character and attempts to give a new slant on Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. As embodied in this Pasadena Playhouse West Coast premiere by tall, impressively dignified John Henry Redwood, Fields emerges as honest and forthright, but the power of his revelations is undercut by a two-hour-plus running time, an excess of minor details and the lack of a fresh point of view on familiar historical incidents.
Born in 1900, Alonzo Fields came from Lyles Station, Ind., a town of just 800 people, determined to be a great singer. His ambitions were thwarted by the raw reality of the Depression and the necessity of supporting his wife and daughter. Redwood touchingly conveys the disappointment of discarding artistic dreams as he works 12-hour days for the rigidly formal, organized Hoovers. Nothing particularly compelling occurs at this point, and it’s a relief when the passionate Roosevelts roar onto the scene.
Act Two is considerably more lively, when Still delves deeper into the Roosevelts: Eleanor’s tireless activism, Franklin’s democratic acceptance of all opinions. The dark side is FDR’s frighteningly flexible political savvy, which led him to endorse Hugo Black for the Supreme Court despite Black’s known Klan membership, and ego, exemplified by the line, “Now I’ll go down in history disgraced,” following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
It’s a measure of contemporary celebrity adulation that anecdotes involving movie stars evoke the most laughter and overall reaction, particularly Fields’ clash with a combative, inebriated Errol Flynn. Also amusing are encounters with Winston Churchill, who abhorred whistling and relished swimming in the nude.
Despite the ailing Roosevelt’s negative estimate of Truman (“My God, with Truman on the ticket, I have to live now”), Truman turns out to be the truly heroic figure of the evening. Unlike FDR, who would recognize servants one day and ignore them the next, Truman learned the name of every individual on Fields’ staff. He integrated the armed forces, in the face of Eisenhower’s opposition, and flew Fields to his mother’s funeral on a military plane.
Redwood gains stature when he tells us, “Have pride in yourself. … Whatever you say about me doesn’t matter because I know myself. I know who I am.” The trouble is, we don’t know him as well as he knows himself. His relationships with his family remain shadowy, and rarely is any emotional connection made with those who work under him. For all his interaction with presidents, Fields remains a disciplined onlooker, an amiable symbol rather than a fully fleshed-out human being.
Michael Kerk’s music and use of actual broadcasts of key events is subtle and effective. Russell Metheny’s scenic design doesn’t do enough to suggest the White House. Given repeated discussion of dinners — including one for 1,600 guests, 36 waiters, 22 busboys — and specific details of White House menus, the physical absence throughout of tables, dishes and silverware is felt as a serious omission.