|Virginia Kincaid, Sandee Cnossen, and Patti Speight|
By Tina Arth
In September 2016, I thoroughly enjoyed the STAGES benefit production of Tea For Three - Lady Bird, Pat and Betty – in fact, in my review I mentioned that the show deserved much more than its three-night run. In light of the presidential election less than two months later and subsequent events, the play has taken on a whole new dimension, and I am delighted to see it back (again for three nights only) this weekend. Even though it’s the same script, with the same cast, I strongly encourage you to see it again (and if you missed it in 2016, then by all means don’t make the same mistake twice!). (A brief confession – parts of this review are lifted verbatim from my 2016 posting.)
STAGES production manager Cindy Wilkins, vocal director Angela Reiswig, the remarkable three-woman cast, and a new group of amazingly talented young vocalists present a truly eye-opening experience with this tale of three of the United States’ memorable first ladies. In September 2016, we thought we were on the verge of something that would have been unimaginable to Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford – the election of the first woman president. Although things didn’t quire work out that way, the September before the 2018 midterm elections is a great time to reflect on past presidents and their wives, and the wave of woman now running for office at all levels throughout the land.
The structure of the play is simple and clever. Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford are each given 30+ minutes of uninterrupted stage time. Two years ago, the play sporadically lapsed into brief bouts of chaos in the form of student protesters. This year, the protesters have been replaced by a stunningly talented vocal group, A7, who begin the show and fill the space between the three monologues with ‘60s/’70’s pop songs, fitting reminders of the era (and a great way to fill time as props are changed for each first lady). Lady Bird’s segment begins with 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 adds perspective, clearly illustrating not only the sociological gap between these three women but also the historical turning points encapsulated in their White House terms. 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 – it’s more than a little heartbreaking when she shoves away the dinner delivered to her room, because it’s just too sad eating dinner alone in the White House dining room while her husband eats in his study. She grabs us with a phone conversation – clearly the highlight of her day – with one of with the Secret Service “boys” who not only protected her, but also 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. This is a segment that feels much more meaningful in light of the attention now being paid to (and the lack of any real leadership in dealing with) the epidemic of opioid abuse. 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.
Special mention must be made of Animaté Voice Studio students Will Armory, Vivian Lang, Krista Reiswig, and Marty Margolin (together, A7). I’d love to see a full concert performance by these spectacular young singers!
Tea For Three is well worth a couple of hours of your life, and the fact that it benefits a wonderful youth theater program is an added bonus. I hope that the three performances all sell out – the evening will give you something to chew on long after the lights go up.
The STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy benefit production of Tea For Three runs through Sunday, September 16th at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro with performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday and 2:00 on Sunday.