The premiere of Roustabouts “Roosevelt” is a historical overview of presidential leadership
By Pat Launer
Imagine, if you will: an energetic leader who is not an autocrat, who has a big heart, intellectual curiosity, genuinely effective negotiation skills and a sincere desire to help the poor and the disenfranchised.
He was our 26th president. And a Republican, to boot.
You will meet him in “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear”, a solo world premiere, the second by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson.
Johnson, co-founder of the four-year-old Roustabouts Co., stars, as he did in Freedman and Johnson’s first collaboration, âA Jewish Jokeâ.
This time he lives in the Rough Rider, the Bullmoose, Theodore Roosevelt (Don’t call him Teddy!). Johnson convincingly resembles the man who made not walk slowly and carry a big stick, although he has advised others to do so. This man is scary and fearless.
Roosevelt, the (reluctant) former Vice President, recently took over the Oval Office following the assassination of President William McKinley.
It is 1902, and times are tough. Cabinet and Congress are considerably less than welcoming or supportive. Nearly 200 coal miners have just died in an explosion. Today, 140,000 miners are on strike, fighting for shorter hours, better wages and the simple recognition of their union (UMW, United Mine Workers).
If coal mining stops, Roosevelt knows, trains and factories will stop. And when winter comes, people will “freeze to death in their homes.”
âThe bear,â says the famous big game hunter metaphorically, âis stalking me nowâ. (On a personal note, I will never forget all those huge animal heads mounted on the walls of his house in Oyster Bay, Long Island).
The wealthy mine owners (with names like Morgan and Carnegie) want him to back down. The miners implore his help.
Ignoring social and political customs, he responds to the demands of the people.
In this generally fact-based story, Roosevelt is haunted by a letter from a 13-year-old miner whose 9-year-old brother is already showing signs of black lung disease, because he was working downstairs. The President carries the letter with him so as not to forget it.
A self-proclaimed “man of action,” Roosevelt takes a train journey through the Northeastern Coal States, meeting and listening to people.
He got his sense of character, he tells us (though it’s not entirely clear who “we” the audience is supposed to be), from his father, Theodore Sr., who helped him go from a young, weak asthmatic being bullied to a tough, indomitable leader, who then had a boxing ring set up in the basement of the White House.
As he tries to bring the opposing parties together for arbitration, he says, âI appeal to your best natures, in the name of patriotism. (Wouldn’t it have been nice to have heard these words once or twice in the past four years?).
The preparation for the strike resolution is full of suspense. The stories between battles and strategies – about his father and his family; her physically handicapped sister; his two wives (his mother and his first wife died within hours of each other); and his breathtaking animal-loving children – offer the personal, sometimes sentimental, touch that makes the story so much more than a didactic and dry history lesson.
Under the nuanced leadership of Rosina Reynolds, Johnson is masterful in the role, displaying a wide range of emotions, from heartbreak to bluster, from anger to compassion. It is a performance of bravery.
The excellent production, shot in a private studio, is centered in the Oval Office, but there are multiple mini-locales (exceptional scenography by Tony Cucuzzella), expertly lit (Joel Britt), which take us with him on his vigorous walks. , his train journeys, his moments of rumination and uncertainty. The sound (Matt Lescault-Wood) is crisp, the costume (Jordyn Smiley) is appropriate, and the photography and editing (Michael Brueggemeyer) is top notch.
The room couldn’t be more timely, couldn’t pierce your soul more deeply. It also reminds you of the kinds of behaviors and actions that to win a face on Mount Rushmore.
âRoosevelt: Charge the Bearâ gives us a glimpse into real leadership, compassion, empathy, and democracy in the workplace.
Pat Launer, member of the American Association of Theater Critics, is a longtime San Diego art writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.