Review: Review: Streaming presidents and love stories keeping San Diego theater fans busy
Reviews of “JQA,” “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear,” “Dear ONE” and “Same Time Next Year”
San Diego’s theaters may be closed to the public, but they’re far from inactive. More than a dozen locally produced shows have opened for video and audio streaming in the past few weeks, actually exceeding the usual number of live theater openings during a similar period in a non-pandemic year.
I’ve watched and listened to a number of this month’s new shows and rounded some of them up in mini-reviews with streaming information for those that are still playing.
On the eve of one the most important presidential elections in modern history, San Diego Repertory Theatre and The Roustabouts Theatre Co. have opened new plays that recall two past U.S. presidents who notably put their country before themselves. Both plays are sharp and well-acted productions and great viewing.
Aaron Posner’s “JQA,” a 1-year-old play making its regional premiere at San Diego Rep, is a taut and cleverly conceived biography of John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president, who served from 1825 to 1829.
Four actors — two men and two women of different ethnicities — take turn playing Adams, as well as many other famous figures that the career statesman interacts with onstage in scenes that begin when Adams was 9 years old and end when he’s months away from death at age 80.
Though drawn from fact, the play opens with the actors explaining that everything the audience will see is fiction, or as Posner writes, “erudite balderdash.”
In his interactions with Secretary of State Henry Clay, President Andrew Jackson, former president James Madison and future president Abraham Lincoln, Adams is seen as a man who advocates for federally funded science education, the abolition of slavery and the government’s fiscal responsibility to “be good and to do good” for its people. But in conversations with his long-suffering wife Louisa and his stern mother Abigail Adams, a less noble side of the man is laid bare: absentee husband, cold, unaffectionate father and inflexible, unlikable politician.
Filmed on the Rep stage with full costumes and set by Tim Powell and nimbly directed by Sam Woodhouse, the play has a first-rate cast includes Larry Bates, Jesse Perez, Rosina Reynolds and Crystal Lucas-Perry.
Reynolds is most memorable as the formidable George Washington and irascible elderly John Quincy Adams. Perez is magnetic as the profane and outspoken Henry Clay. Bates is the most convincing as Adams, playing him at ages 42, 50 and 58. And Lucas-Perry is heartbreaking as Louisa Adams.
“JQA” is streaming through Nov. 5. Tickets are $35 at: sdrep.org.
While it’s less flashy in its staging concept, Roustabout’s world premiere “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” is a terrific new play about President Teddy Roosevelt written by the solo show’s star Phil Johnson and Marni Freedman.
The play is set in the icy winter of 1902, after Roosevelt has unexpectedly ascended to the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley.
The 90-minute drama is told in the style of a colorful hunting tale. In this case, the “bear” stalking Roosevelt is the bullying senator from Ohio, MarK Hanna, who schemes to take down the new president, calling him a “crazed cowboy.” But like John Quincy Adams, Roosevelt is a visionary bent on progress, expanding science and technology and using the government’s largesse to raise up the poor, immigrant and Black Americans.
With Hanna’s support, the nation’s coal mine owners have locked out the striking workers, just as first winds of winter arrive. Roosevelt must choose a side in the high-stakes battle for public support, but who will blink first?
Directed with verve by Rosina Reynolds, it’s a gripping, enlightening and entertaining story told with both endearing ebullience and introspection by Johnson in a tour de force performance.
“Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” is streaming through Nov. 2, through Roustabouts said it may relaunch streaming of the video in mid-November. Tickets are $25 at theroustabouts.org.
Queer history revisited
Diversionary Theatre kicked off its fall AmeriQueer series this month with the San Diego premiere of “Dear ONE: Love & Longing in Mid-Century Queer America.”
The fascinating play is presented as a 1950s-style audio documentary featuring five actors portraying 40 people reading real letters that were written to “ONE,” the pioneering LGBTQ magazine that was published in Los Angeles from 1952 to 1967.
The play was written and directed by Josh Irving Gershick, who was commissioned to write the piece in 2012 by the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.
The Diversionary production features performances by famed gay rights icon George Takei, trans actor Nicky Endres, Diana Burbano, Monique Gaffney and JP Karliak.
The 90-minute play presents the letter readings in chronological order — beginning just months after the publication of the first issue and concluding in 1965 — and their contents reflect the gradual awakening of the gay rights movement in America.
The initial letters, written at a time when gay Americans were barred from jobs and housing and were seen as a public threat, are filled with gratitude and joy that a periodical has finally shined a light on the lives of those who live in the shadows. But there are also letters that are pleading, fearful and tragic.
One male letter-writer from Tulsa pledges in 1953 to openly protect the rights of people to love who they choose. But a 1956 letter from a woman in Quebec asks for lesbian pen pals, since the Canadian postal inspector refuses to deliver her magazine. That same year, a man named Harvey writes asking for advice on a drug he can take to control his homosexual desires.
There are letters from women and trans readers who are desperate to read more stories about people like themselves. There is hate mail from angry spouses not only decrying the magazine but also denying that homosexuality exists. And there are harrowing stories of gay men losing their jobs, being hospitalized, falsely accused of crimes and thrown in jail.
By the early 1960s, the letters begin to shift in tone, as LGBTQ people find self-acceptance and begin to live more openly. There’s a thank-you note from a minister in Detroit who believes “love has no bounds.” There are letters from men and women coming to California to live freely. And there are queries from writers seeking group meetings for Christian homosexuals, as well as referrals reassignment surgery.
The play ends with with sobering references to persistent negative public attitudes about homosexuality that show the journey toward acceptance has just begun. The talented team of actors, who recorded the play over Zoom, employ a variety of emotions and accents that add realism and poignance to the play.
Still to come in the AmeriQueer series next month are Samuel D. Hunter’s companion plays “Lewiston,” streaming Friday through Nov. 12, and “Clarkston,” Nov. 13 through 26.
“Dear ONE” streams through Friday. Tickets are free, but donations are suggested at: diversionary.org/ameriqueer.
Forbidden love stands the test of time
Bernard Slade’s 1975 romantic comedy “Same Time Next Year” has grown a little creaky with age, but thanks to the chemistry of its co-stars in a new streaming production from North Coast Repertory Theatre, the play still has its charms.
Real-life spouses Bruce Turk and Katie MacNichol play George and Doris, a pair of extramarital lovers who meet for one weekend of lovemaking every year at a Northern California inn from 1951 to 1975.
Over the years, their relationship deepens, fractures, re-heals and changes while their personal lives and careers transform, their separate marriages endure and their families grow.
Director David Ellenstein juices up the slapstick comedy in the early scenes, but he later allows the actors gentler, more natural romantic rapport to shine.
For a 45-year-old play, the sexual banter in the script is surprisingly frank. But some of the dialogue feels sexist and dated. And one line late in the play, where Doris refers to George’s long-betrayed wife as the “best friend” she never met, feels cringingly inappropriate.
Set in a rustic cabin that barely changes over 24 years, the show’s passage of time is amusingly reflected in the actors’ costumes and hairstyles.
“Same Time Next Year” is streaming through Nov. 15. Tickets are $35 at northcoastrep.org.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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