The confluence of Barrack Obama’s inauguration with the upcoming Midnight production of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” underscores the relevance of the Truman script, as well as the timely excitement and privilege of portraying one of our nation’s Presidents.
For me, doing the research is one of the joys of theatre with a historical setting. I’ve been fortunate enough to play many real personages, and have always relished the research work, whether it was needed or not.
With Midnight, I’ve played Walt Disney in WALT AND ROY (a true Hollywood “Dark Prince,” with a manic, take-no-prisoners work ethic; I read several books on him, with varying takes on just how dark he could be, but the eventual effort went towards resembling the younger Walt as much as I could, complete with requisite signature moustache); also Beethoven in the wonderful, fanciful THE HUNCHBACK VARIATIONS (again, going for a look that would suffice – wild hair, big determined jaw – but though the play was an intellectual fantasy, again took the time to read up on him, as well as listen extensively to his music); and, of course, the most intensive research went into writing and directing THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES (which meant not only finding the few, best documented tellings of the James Gang’s life and exploits, and carefully and instinctively choosing between plausible deeds of daring-do and straight out legend, but also focusing on period details, such as the way the outlaws drew their pistols – not in the typical gunfighter draw but across the body with their Navy Colts holstered on their left hips. The James show also included a fun and fact-filled visit to the James Farm and Museum in Kearney, which resulted in a couple of on-site performances up that way.)
I also got to play Ty Cobb in Lee Blessing’s COBB (loving that baseball research – do you have any idea how many times Cobb stole home?) and gay British World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in BREAKING THE CODE, both for the late City Players.
But the role of Harry Truman at this particular time is a true labor of love. (I’ve done this show before, in ’92 for The Orthwein, as a political statement for the Clinton campaign.) Research started, now as then, with a re-reading of the David McCullough biography, as well as several other Truman books, to foster understanding of his life and times. As rehearsals with director Sarah Whitney commenced, I focused on extensive viewings of Truman’s speeches on DVD to start to capture his voice and physical presence. (Gary Sinise’s portrayal in the HBO TRUMAN movie also helped.) I certainly couldn’t “become” Truman, but it was necessary to get close to his physical image to carry the show off. Makeup (by local artist Breezy) and spot-on costumes by Betsy Krausnick (who also costumed our Jesse James show) would aid the transformation.
However, it’s capturing the spirit of Truman that is the real goal of this show.
The challenges he faced were momentous: wars, economic crises, communist aggression abroad, red-baiting witch-hunting at home – critical times, much like current day.
Truman handled these challenges with courage, wisdom and a straight-talking, very human touch. So, too, we now have the hope that our new President will continue to exhibit those same qualities.
“Give “em Hell Barrack”