They don’t make presidents like they used to.
As a matter of fact, as the opening of “Give 'em Hell, Harry!” points out, Harry S. Truman broke the mold when he ascended to the Oval Office.
Truman had been vice president for only four months when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. It was just the beginning of FDR’s fourth term and World War II was still going on.
Reading from his correspondence onstage, Truman notes that a person has to be friendless and nearly heartless – a Machiavelli, a Caesar, a Borgia, a double-crosser and a liar – to be a good president.
“So I probably won’t be,” he reads out loud. “But I’m having fun trying the opposite approach.”
Truman was too down-to-earth for this one-man show to be called a romp, but actor David Lundy is having a blast bringing America’s most homespun commander-in-chief since Lincoln to life. In a two-week pre-Election Day run at New Phoenix Theatre, audiences can enjoy about two hours of presidential play-acting that celebrates straight-talking philosophy, political integrity and marital fidelity.
Lundy embraces Samuel Gallu’s script for all it's worth. He wisely chooses to evoke the Truman personality without doing a full-blown impersonation of Truman’s high, fast-talking Missouri accent.
Taking on the style and posture of the former haberdasher, Lundy delivers a folksy narrative that swings from the White House to his Midwestern roots and back again, dropping in quotable gems like, “I never saw myself as president. I just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time,” and opinions that have a fresh ring today.
Like when he says the three things that can ruin a man are power, money and women. If a man can accept power as a gift to use temporarily, he’s all right, Truman says.
“But if he thinks for one minute that he created the power, it will ruin him every time.”
He continues to say that making too much money too fast separates a person from the people who “have to work all their lives just to earn a living,” and if a man isn’t faithful to his family, well, that’s a problem all its own.
“Of course if a guy’s just looking to get some honey on his stinger,” he concludes, “he’s in one hell of a fix anyway.”
Our theatrical Harry doesn’t like phonies, and he stands up to the Klan and to big-money interests elbowing their way to the public trough.
The show is a loving tribute, not a critique, for a president whose time in office was plagued by second-guessers but whose legacy shines more brightly each year. Much of it is devoted to the personal experiences that created the level-headed leader: Truman's World War I service, his lack of athleticism, his love for his family and his distaste for bullies of all sorts.
And Lundy never connects more than when flashing that Truman smile that's so familiar from the famous "Dewey defeats Truman" photo.
People will remember the smile but perhaps not so much of Truman’s presidency, since he left office in 1953, or of the difficult decisions he faced after he fell into the job. Using the atomic bomb on Japan. Dealing with the communist threat in Korea and the disobedience of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. And even whether to allow the public release of personal and intimate papers that could ruin the presidential aspirations of Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican.
“Politics is a rough game,” Truman says. But: “There’s a difference between rough and dirty.”
In the end, MacArthur was fired but Ike was spared.
Lundy, who also directed the show with Peter Palmisano, and New Phoenix knew what they were doing last year when they scheduled “Give ’em Hell” during election season. They may not have realized at the time, however, what a breath of fresh air Mr. Truman would bring to this campaign-weary audience.
'Give 'em Hell, Harry!"
3 stars (out of 4)
One-man show starring David Lundy as Harry S. Truman as he reflects on the high, low and humorous moments of his life and presidency. At New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park, through Oct. 29. Ticket information at newphoenix.org or call 853-1334.
Story topics: theater review