The World Premier of the latest work by local playwright Tom Hickman was held at the Neptune Beach Senior Activity Center on Forest Ave in the beaches area last weekend. Two more performances remain, on May 28th and 29th at 8 P.M.
Hickman has written several plays with a historical setting. His last endeavor was Forrest, about the Confederate General with a Jacksonville high school that bears his name.
His latest is a (mostly) true story, and a comedy, about President Franklin D. Roosevelt at a time late in his first term in office, as he is preparing for the coming 1936 election. Roosevelt had benefited from the support of Huey Long, the flamboyant former Governor of Louisiana, now a US Senator, in his initial run for the Presidency. Long is disappointed by Roosevelt’s administration and policies and is threatening to run as a third party candidate. Long wants to institute his “Share the Wealth” program which was designed to redistribute the wealth of American’s richest citizens among the poorest. Since this was the middle of the Great Depression, it was a program that would win the votes of millions of unemployed Americans.
The first act takes place in Roosevelt’s office in Warm Springs. Roosevelt agrees to travel to Louisiana to discuss Long’s plans. The President’s security advisor, a retired general, fears an attempt will be made on Roosevelt’s life and hires a double to make the trip. Enter actor P.D. Swan, (who is a dead ringer for the President in every way). The General briefs the President, Mr. Swan, and Secret Service Agents Tolliver (Andrew McCraney) and B. J. (Terry Dean McCraney) about the particulars of the Louisiana visit.
The President stays behind in Warm Springs Georgia to receive additional treatment for his paralysis and to spend some time with his long-time mistress Lucy Mercer. His wife Eleanor is in New Orleans tending to one of her many pet projects.
In the second act, their encounter takes place in the rustic home of a Bayou dweller. The confrontation between the fake President and Huey Long is complicated by the excessive drinking of the president’s double, who begins to make outrageous promises to Long that were not in the plans. Everyone except Lucy winds up at the cabin home, with some interesting twists and outcomes that we will not reveal.
Jerry Wisner is excellent as Roosevelt (and the double, of course), since he looks and sounds like the real FDR. We last saw Mr. Wisner in The Govat ABET a few seasons back and many years ago as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey at the long departed Case Theatre in Mandarin.
This play was directed by Steve Bailey who also took on the important role of Huey Long. Bailey captured the bombastic banter of the late Mr. Long and he provided much of the humor in this comedy/drama. Imagine actor John Goodman with short hair and you have a good picture of Mr. Bailey.
Patricia Smith made her stage debut as Lucy Mercer and was convincing as this attractive, interesting woman who reportedly had an affair with Roosevelt lasting 30 years.
Joseph Wells Jr. as Robespierre, who accidently wound up hosting this confab in his home because of a severe storm, has several humorous moments describing his pet alligator and serving his homemade moonshine to his guests. Wells was last on stage locally as the leading man in August Wilson’s Fences performed at the FCCJ North Campus about five years ago.
Playwright Tom Hickman played General Hugh Johnson. The actor originally cast in this role was forced to drop out less than a week before the opening. The show must go on and Hickman, who has done some acting in the past, stepped in with less than a week’s rehearsal. Hickman did quite well considering all the lines he had to learn in such a short time. The role is really the third major character.
Frances Paul as Eleanor Roosevelt dressed the part and sounded like the cultured, politically engaged wife of a President. Ms. Paul is an active member of The Vintage Players, a senior acting group that performs a couple of times each month all over the Jacksonville area.
The set was simple, but worked well in the setting. A large screen at the back of the stage was used as a wall, complete with framed photographs and a window frame. A table with a telephone and small American flags served as FDR’s desk and later as Robespierre dining table.
We like historical plays, and Mr. Hickman carefully researches his projects to make them accurate and interesting. He, of course, has used some creative license to structure the story to the stage. His plays are always thought provoking and certainly have stimulated us to do research on the characters involved. In fact, before you attend one of the two final performances, you might do a little internet research on Huey Long, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lucy Mercer and Franklin D. Roosevelt. View for additional background. It will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the play.
The discussions in the play about how to address the economic problems of the Great Depression are certainly relevant and timely, considering what is going on with our economy today.
Tickets are a bargain at $10.00 so don’t miss this interesting new play, The President’s Double.