WARWICK — From the references to America in music that plays as audiences take their seats, to the emotion that’s hard to shake even as folks exit the theater, The Gamm’s production of “JQA” hits every target.
It’s a rumination on politics wrapped up in a history lesson that, in turn, unwraps a fresh perspective on both. It’s a play about ideas, but it’s unfailingly entertaining. And the four-person cast is amazing.
“JQA” stands for John Quincy Adams, the son of a president who continued the legacy as the sixth president of the United States. He was a lawyer, diplomat, served as secretary of state and as a Congressman.
Playwright Aaron Posner uses historical fact as a framework for engagingly theatrical fiction, imagining encounters between JQA and important people in his life: George Washington, Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, as well as his own parents.
Four actors play all the characters, including taking turns as JQA from age 9 to his 80s. To keep things clear, the title character always wears a red coat; the others are identified with introductions or in dialogue.
Those are the mechanics of the production, but what keeps us thinking is the substance of Posner’s work. He explores themes of power, leadership, and the personal cost of the latter. He looks at how Adams’ upbringing affected his ideas, and how people with different ideas shaped his thinking.
For example, in a fictionalized, whiskey-fueled discussion, the pragmatic Clay and principled Adams discuss the role of compromise in government and in “getting things done.” Their debate resonates in today’s political climate, but looking at the issues in an historical context takes away some of our contemporary animosity and fosters a bigger-picture approach.
Director Tony Estrella and associate director Tyler Dobrowsky keep the focus on the history, but this is far from a dry diatribe. If the first few scenes feel more like pronouncements than theater, it’s a short wait until things warm up, the characters come to life, and scenes portray the humor that might have lightened interactions between historical figures.
Playing multiple roles keeps each actor in the spotlight. As JQA, the actors – Normand Beauregard, Candice Brown, Jonathan Higginbotham and Helena Tafuri – present different sides of Adams’ personality, and each iteration is interesting and believable. The directors see to keeping an underlying consistency among the portrayals.
However, the actors often are memorable in supporting roles. Beauregard is outstanding as the plain-spoken but politically canny Henry Clay. Higginbotham nails the swagger and arrogance of the incoming President Andrew Jackson, who brings radically different ideas about the role of government in Americans’ lives than his predecessor, Adams, did. At Sunday’s matinee, his passion as Frederick Douglass earned an impromptu round of applause.
Five-foot-3-inch Tafuri dons an extra tall top hat to play a young Abraham Lincoln, but the disparity in height and gender doesn’t matter in her evocative portrayal. Her interaction with Adams, this time played by Brown with subtle but heartfelt emotion, is especially moving.
The set, designed by Michael McGarty, starts out looking like the Hall of the Presidents, especially with the red coats that will be worn during the production hanging like statues. Then designer Steve McLellan changes the lighting, and the hall, like the actors, plays multiple roles. Especially effective is flickering fireplace light in one of the closing scenes.
As the play begins, one character says it is about, “life, liberty and a more rational relationship with government.” That alone is reason to be intrigued by Posner’s play. So is the fact this is only its second production; the premiere was just last spring at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
New work, thought-provoking ideas and a top-notch production are the reasons to put “JQA” on the must-see list.
Performances of “JQA” continue through Nov. 17 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $45, $55 and $65 and available by phone at (401) 723-4266 or online at gammtheatre.org.