|Virginia Kincaid (Lady Bird), Sandee Cnossen (Pat), and Patti Speight (Betty)|
By Tina Arth
My enthusiasm for the STAGES benefit production of Tea For Three - Lady Bird, Pat and Betty, currently playing at the HART Theatre, is tempered only by my dismay that this wonderful show is only available for a three-night run – this is a play that deserves so much more! Director Kim Sandstrom, her remarkable three-woman cast, and a small army of STAGES youth theatre kids have crafted a truly memorable experience from the tale of three of the United States’ amazing first ladies. The timing could not be better – not only is the current presidential race bringing a heightened awareness to the political process, but we are on the verge of possibly seeing a first lady move from “the hardest unpaid job in the world” (a quote from Pat Nixon) to being President. This would have been absolutely inconceivable in the 1960s and ‘70s when the story takes place, yet for many of us that time period is a vivid part of our lives, rather than just a bit of history.
The structure of the play is simple and clever. Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford are each given 30+ minutes of stage time, alone except for the occasional intrusion of protesters (enthusiastically portrayed by the STAGES teens). Lady Bird begins at the Kennedy assassination and ends by preparing to give her successor, Pat Nixon, a tour of the White House and an introduction to the complex and undervalued role of First Lady. Pat Nixon’s turn concludes after the Watergate affair as she prepares, following Dick Nixon’s resignation, to give Betty Ford the same tour. The final scene with Betty Ford puts the whole thing in perspective, clearly illustrating not only the sociological gap between these three women but the historical turning points encapsulated in their White House terms. Between each of the women there is a brief intermission, allowing for quick changes of key photographs and other props appropriate to the lady in question. As a “woman of a certain age” whose adolescence and early twenties coincided with the show’s events, I was reminded of so many moments that I had forgotten – but also given insight into the challenges and heartache that go hand in hand with the position of First Lady in any era.
The three principal actors bring the show to life with riveting authenticity. Texas native Virginia Kincaid (Lady Bird Johnson) nails the Texas accent, of course, but beyond that she delivers the mixture of insecurity, self-effacement, grace, and iron will that somehow coexisted in LBJ’s loyal helpmate. Sandee Cnossen (Pat Nixon) perhaps has the toughest role, playing a shy First Lady who lived in the background throughout much of her husband’s tumultuous career. Cnossen projects a quiet dignity, as well as intense loneliness – a high point in her performance is the touching way she describes her relationship with the Secret Service “boys” who not only protected her, but provided her with real friendship that was so lacking in her relationship with her husband. As the high-spirited Betty Ford, both reveling and trapped in the cycle of substance abuse, Patti Speight gets to have a little more fun. Unlike her predecessors, Speight is definitely not drinking tea throughout her time onstage, and as the vodka and pills take hold her carriage and speech become gradually looser and more flamboyant. Speight walks a fine line, and (like Betty Ford) she carefully treads on the edge without becoming openly inebriated.
Tea For Three needs no hype, and I predict that the three performances will easily sell out. I can only hope that this wonderful assemblage of actors is able to find another venue to reprise their roles in the near future!
The STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy benefit production of Tea For Three runs through Sunday, October 2 at Hillsboro’s HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through with performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 on Sunday.