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Big man, small treatment

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Geva Theatre continues its adventurous programming into the summer with a work of historical interest in the intimate Nextstage. Even before Indiana Repertory Theatre's world premiere last fall of James Still's Looking over the President's Shoulder, Geva had arranged to give its original production this second presentation anywhere. It now has other productions planned nationwide. Starring distinguished playwright John Henry Redwood, and directed by author Still, it is a virtuoso one-man staging of the memoirs of Alonzo Fields, chief White House butler to Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower.

            Fields reminisces about great presidents, renowned visitors such as Sir Winston Churchill, the King and Queen of England, glamorous movie stars, and such glorious artists as Marian Anderson. His White House tenure extended through all of World War II and included the Korean War. Much of the White House was rebuilt during Truman's presidency, causing its occupants to move to the Blair House across the street. But what Fields tells us about this most fascinating period in White House history is not only disappointingly superficial, but so narrowly focused on his own concerns that it seems like the equivalent of the Vatican's insect exterminator revealing the various popes’ attitudes toward bugs.

            In the manipulative ending, we see Fields finally leaving the White House, bag in hand, about to board a bus across Pennsylvania Avenue. He stops to consider his lifelong disappointment at not becoming an opera singer, groans through Schubert's Ave Maria, notably off-key, and triumphantly concludes that he has been an artist in setting beautiful tables and giving aid and comfort to great men and women during troubling times.

            The problem is that he has hardly expressed any interest in, or details of, such activities during the play. We’ve seen him move chairs and stand and make announcements, and have short dialogues; but we've neither seen nor heard him talk about arranging food and floral displays and presentations of fine china, crystal, or silver. And his memories of the great and famous he encountered center on how much they appreciated him. Even discussing the greatest American vocal artist, Marian Anderson, he notes that he met her both when she was young and later, and that she received unique honors. If this man was so involved with vocal music, how about a word on Anderson's voice?

            I don't know whether Fields' memoirs are so shallow or Still's script is, or both. Certainly, Still's direction does nothing to expand the central character's stature. The actor has more than enough physical and vocal equipment to do more if guided to. I'm not familiar with Redwood's extensive acting career; I know of him only as the author of the splendid play, The Old Settler, which we saw at Geva with Leslie Uggams and on television with Phylicia Rashad. But he is a tall, handsome man with a deep, beautiful voice, commanding presence, and obvious acting skills. Here he mostly takes stances and uses about four voices for the many amazing people Fields met. One voice is for all women, ranging from Fields' mother to Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman; one presents all white men and public announcements, including FDR, Truman, Nixon, and Eisenhower; one, with amusing physical business, portrays Churchill; and we're treated to Redwood's own impressive vocal delivery for Fields.

            The play is two-and-a-quarter hours long. Though it is set in "Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C., 1953," and Russell Metheny's scenery offers a nifty, climactic set-change, the action takes place mostly in the White House. Darren W. McCroom's lighting lends more variety than Still's blocking. And Redwood is too charismatic to permit the audience to get restless. But it all feels like missed opportunities. The man who apparently earned the regard of such great world leaders must have had more to him.

Looking over the President's Shoulder, written and directed by James Still, plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 5 and 9:30 p.m. Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays to July 7 at the Geva Theatre's Nextstage. Info:www.gevatheatre.org or (585) 232-4382.

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