Tabard Theatre Company continues its “True Lives” theme with the Bay Area Premiere of James Stills’ one-man play, Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, telling the story of Alonzo Fields, the chief butler in the White House through four administrations. In a note at the beginning of the script (and in the program), Stills writes, “I remember thinking there was something wonderfully subversive and bold about a one-man play whose character hadn’t been allowed to talk on the job.” And talk he does. And the story he tells is captivating.
Fields starts the story at the end while sitting on a bench across the street from the White House awaiting his bus having just finished his final day in service of the president. He tells us some facts about the White House, about some of the presidents before his service, and of his background. He grew up in Lyles Station, Indiana in a family where music thrived, and he wanted to be an opera singer. At one point, he even attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston to hone his craft. Through a twist of fate, he thought he’d delay his concert debut a year, but instead, he ended up in service at the White House from 1931 to 1953 under presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and very briefly, Eisenhower.
The set is simple, yet elegant. A park bench sits in front of the stage on the “street”. On stage, a sideboard and shelving unit sit stage right, a dining table sits on an area rug center stage in front of a curtained screen, and a coat rack and small table sit stage left providing the butler’s pantry, the dining room, and the servants’ locker room respectively.
Director Doug Baird allows actor James Creer to bring this story to life. Creer’s charisma and charm fit the story so well; he is Alonzo Fields reminiscing about this incredible life he’s been leading. Fields has been in the forefront, serving the presidents as they discussed the issues of the day with their advisors, met with heads of state and celebrities, and celebrated events with their families. When Creer first enters as Fields, he’s dressed for the winter wearing hat, gloves, overcoat, and scarf over his formal attire as he tells us how he got there. Creer can’t stay seated as he tells the story. He jumps to his feet talking to the entire house, his warm gestures drawing folks in. He makes the audience members feel at home as though they are listening to an old friend tell the complicated, yet fascinating story of his life.
Once he gets to the part of the story describing Fields’ tenure at the White House, Creer moves on stage, telling us more of the story as he removes his outdoor clothes and dons the appropriate garb for his duties, describing the events surrounding Fields’ arrival as he does so. He “buttles” as he talks, dusting the dining table chairs, folding napkins, arranging meal settings and so on.
This show has a lot of lines, and they are all Creer’s as Fields. This is a huge load, and sometimes Creer is a bit shaky on specifics, but even when he misses, he sells it and makes it sound natural as though Fields might mix up the names of the first ladies on occasion or remain deep in thought a tad too long.
In relating specific conversations, Creer’s Fields sometimes imitates the speakers. This is fun. He’s extremely animated not only emulating their speech (though his British accent is rather amusing when he’s channeling Winston Churchill), but also their mannerisms. While this isn’t a musical, the audience also gets a taste of Creer’s exquisite singing voice when he delivers part of “Votre toast, je peux vous le render” (i.e., the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen) a cappella. He later sings part of “O Holy Night” and finally most of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” with recorded accompaniment.
On the technical side, lighting designer Selina Young has done a beautiful job creating the mood, the lighting soft, so that we never lose sight of the fact that we’re looking back in time, though occasionally Creer is a bit in the dark. Together with technical director John Palmer, the lighting is combined with period scenes projected on the screen to complete the picture. The scenes include the band in which Fields’ father played, street views of the neighborhoods in Indiana and Boston, and of course the White House in daylight and lit up at night. In addition, pictures of the presidents, their families, and some of their most famous guests are also displayed, and along with many of these scenes and pictures, we hear sound designer Mike Haimson’s work via the audio from newsreels to increase the impact of the story being told.
Looking Over the President’s Shoulder is a fascinating story that is extremely moving and educational, although not necessarily only for the facts you’d learn in your high school history class. Alonzo Fields was an admirable man, and it’s a pleasure to watch James Creer bring his story to life as evidenced by the standing ovation he received on opening night. Don’t miss this one.
What: Looking Over the President’s Shoulder by James Still
When: Continues through 24 February; Thursday (21 February only), Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays (9 & 16 February at 8PM, 23 February at 3PM), and Sundays at 2PM.
Where: Theatre on San Pedro Square, 29 N. San Pedro Square, San Jose, CA
Info: See www.tabardtheatre.org or call 800-838-3006.
(Photo Credit: Edmond Kwong)