Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, written by Richard Hellesen and starring John Rubinstein, opened this summer at Theatre at St. Clement's. The play centers on the life of America's 34th President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, as he contemplates his legacy. In 2023, we face daunting societal difficulties, considering whether we'll have a nuclear war, how we'll afford to live till we die (if we manage to die old), and what horrors our children will face; therefore, revisiting a leader who valued hard work, believed a person's word was their bond, and felt those he led were the heroes, was a salve for many harried souls.
The story begins as Eisenhower finishes reading an article in a reputable publication, placing him low on the totem pole of best American presidents in history, leading him to reckon with the choices he's made throughout his life and their effects on the world. He does so by flipping on a recording device and voicing his case aloud as notes for a possible book - such an elegant conceit to navigate the lonely realm of the solo show. And most anyone of a certain age, even us non-presidents, at some point contemplate the impact of our lives on others, so the play's core is resonant and expertly crafted to bear the weight of this theme.
Furthermore, Eisenhower grapples with questions such as, what will my legacy be? Am I proud of it, even if the world doesn't see it? The protagonist doesn't exactly answer these questions because he's writing from 1962. Still, he unwittingly offers answers to the future by his example.
Mr. Rubinstein's lithe dancing from layer to layer of his character, son to soldier to husband to father to General to President to former President to farmer, is engrossing. He embodies the weight of Eisenhower's decisions and their historical consequences. He embraced the joy of being a grandparent and the ego of not liking being near the bottom of a historical list--a list that eventually changed perspectives years beyond Eisenhower's passing.
The blocking by director Peter Ellenstein was dearly natural, not a move forced or placed to use up space. Rubinstein expertly maneuvered the stage to support the character's many facets, gliding between his desk, bar, easel, and the center seating area where the recorder lived.
Upon entering the theatre for Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground, audiences are met with seamless, luxurious, unimposing production values. Michael Deegan skillfully designs the set with bay windows depicting panoramic views of Eisenhower's Pennsylvania farm, depicting weather throughout the day, from clouds to rain to returning sun through clouds at dusk, keeping the relatively static set feeling in motion. The room from which Eisenhower told his story felt true; lived-in, tasteful, and aesthetically correct for an ex-president's time and social standing. The books were his. The crystal bourbon glass was his. Mamie Eisenhower probably picked the curtains, but he paid for them. You could tell.
The lighting by Esquire Jauchem, along with the projection and sound by Joe Huppert, complemented the set and aesthetics of the play. At times, our view became the protagonist's memory screen, allowing us to experience death camps, D-Day, Selma, Eisenhower's family and more. At another point, thunder cracked, leaving the audience palpably nervous. I'm still unsure if we heard a sound effect or actual thunder, as a rainstorm was part of the story shortly thereafter. This production was Broadway-level, and Theatre at St. Clement's rose to the challenge with apparent ease - a great place to see theatre.
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground was so artful. There were many times I wanted to stand and cheer well before the end of the play, shouting the way one might in church: Hallelujah and Amen! I didn't even realize how much history I was learning. I just lived an afternoon with a good man in his good home, reviewing his good life. The time flew.
As for the aforementioned historic list, it changed even beyond Eisenhower's passing. In 1962, Eisenhower was the 22nd best American President out of 31. By 2022, he'd inched up the chain to 5th best President out of 46. If this play has anything to say about it, President Eisenhower's rise will not stop there!
"Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground"
Written by Richard Hellesen
Performed by John Rubinstein
Directed by Peter Ellenstein
June 13 - August 20, 2023
Theatre at St. Clement's
423 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036 https://www.eisenhowertheplay.com
Dana Loren McCoy is an award-winning Singer, Songwriter, Playwright, Director, Actor, and Film Composer.
She has topped Billboard charts with her songs, toured, directed, and performed her own and others’ works internationally.