Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 20, 2023

John Rubinstein
Photo by Maria Baranova
"Great American–not great president." This is how a poll of 75 historians damningly characterized Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1962, not even two years after he left office. Richard Hellesen's one-person play Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, now playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's, intends to set the record straight about the 34th president. Part history lesson, part hagiography, and part political homily, the play is, like Ike himself, unassuming and sincere, and if it is not earth-shattering, Eisenhower at least offers a welcome respite from the high drama swirling around the newest former president.

The two-act monologue is set at Eisenhower's sprawling farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he retired with Mamie after his second term. Eisenhower (played by Tony winner John Rubinstein) is supposed to be working on his memoir, but he is distracted and very annoyed that the poll of historians synthesized in the New York Times Magazine lists him 22nd among his predecessors. He is, to his chagrin, listed as "three worse than Herbert Hoover" and just edges out Andrew Johnson, the nation's first impeached president.

The conceit offers a useful dramaturgical device for Eisenhower to chronicle his own memories and provide a rebuttal to the churlish presidential historians. Preserving his memories on a tape recorder, Eisenhower recounts his humble beginnings in Abilene, Kansas, and describes his formative years leading to his appointment to West Point in 1911.

As audience members may recall from high school social studies classes, Eisenhower gradually worked his way up the chain of command in the military and eventually became a five-star general in the U.S. Army. In 1952, he reluctantly ran for president as a moderate and noncommittal Republican and handily beat Adlai Stevenson in a landslide.

The second act primarily focuses on his presidency, and Eisenhower highlights his successes, including supporting the integration of the armed forces and countering the hatred directed at the African American teens collectively known as the Little Rock Nine. He also takes some responsibility for blunders that escalated the Cold War and expresses regret for not taking a stronger hand against the Communist witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy, whom he dubs "the skunk."

There are notable omissions, though. While Hellesen's Eisenhower expresses his disdain for McCarthy and the skunk's assistant, "the weasel" Roy Cohn, he does not mention, except in passing, Richard Nixon, who was his vice president and was a prominent member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also does not address the rumored affair with his driver and personal secretary Kay Summersby nor his executive order barring lesbian and gay Americans from employment in the federal government. These aspects might not square with the loveably irascible and avuncular image of the president presented here.

If the writing glosses over some of the inconvenient truths of Eisenhower's life and career, Rubinstein, under Peter Ellenstein's direction, offers a complex and deeply rooted performance. Rubinstein does not so much offer an impersonation of Eisenhower, but he impressively captures the spirit of a man who strives for steadiness and calm while finding himself caught up in one global and national storm after another. It is a masterful acting achievement.

These storms, incidentally, are literalized in Ellenstein's often heavy-handed production. The upstage wall of the well-appointed living room (containing effective period details in Michael Deegan's scenic design) contains a large window depicting Eisenhower's personal golf course. The wall also provides projections (designed by Joe Huppert) that sometimes seem like accompanying PowerPoint slides for a classroom history lecture. As World War II looms, the skies over the Gettysburg home become more and more ominous, culminating in a violent thunderstorm. (Esquire Jauchem's lighting contributes to the atmospheric and historical moodiness.)

The subtitle of the play, This Piece of Ground, pertains to Eisenhower's view that whatever space we occupy on earth, it is our moral and civic responsibility to make that terrain better for future generations. Eisenhower may present a mythologized version of American history, but myths are often preferable to reality.

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground
Extended through August 20, 2023
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: