My favorite line from “The State of the Union,” now being performed at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., is this (paraphrased fairly accurately), spoken a political operative promoting a campaign for the presidency:
“Whatever you do, don’t fall for the idea that there’s no difference between the political parties. There’s one very important difference. If they win, we’re out.”
“State of the Union” won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize. Written by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it is perfect entertainment fare for the kind of political junkies that populate the nation’s capital. What a more perfect venue, in addition, than the Ford’s Theatre, where the American flag drapes from the box where President Lincoln was shot.
This play takes us back 60 years, two-fifths of the way back to the time of the Lincoln assassination when a nation fresh off the Great Depression and the defeat of Nazism looks to flex its full franchise of the democratic process.
It ran for two years on Broadway, starring Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Hussey, and then in 1948 Frank Capra put it to celluloid, pairing Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the lead roles.
Capra timed the release of the film prior to the Republican presidential nominating convention of 1948. It was an appeal for a political reform resistant to the pressures of the special interest bosses. But of course, we all know that despite the immortal Chicago Tribune headline of “Dewey Defeats Truman” that year, the Democrats stayed in the White House until 1952.
Capra’s film version is only just now out on DVD. But there’s no substitute for the live stage, where this production was born. There’s the special appeal of the accessories and appointments of the studies, bedrooms, hotel suites and apartment living rooms of that era which are more sensuous in person, as well as the cast’s interpretations of the various roles in the play.
It harkens to a recent enough time that the look, feel and smell of the homes, the fashions and the spoken language of the characters recalls the earlier days of most of us, for all except the obscenely young. Whether or not we were exactly alive yet, our parents were steeped in that culture and they got it all over us.
But of course, from the standpoint of the present day, the point of the play, especially of this production directed by Kyle Donnelly, is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The fundamental issue for the candidate, the chief character in the play, being groomed by his handlers to run for president, is the contrast between the practical requirements for getting elected and matters of personal principle. Of course, for most jaded Washington political hacks, that’s a quaint notion that went out with their first successful election, maybe even if it was a middle school homeroom election.
It was an era when special interest bosses determined party nominees, not the general public. It was all about who could deliver what kind of support, financial and otherwise, to carry a candidate to the forefront of his party. The general election was almost an afterthought in the power politics of the era. Certainly the general electorate was. It was all about tailoring messages and campaign promises to appeal to the captains of special interests. Sound familiar?
“You’re worried about the next election, when you should be worried about the next generation,” the candidate’s wife, who encourages him to stand strong for his core beliefs, intones at a key moment. Ellen Karas handles that role with vigor, and her repartee with the heavy-drinking New Orleans judge’s wife, played charmingly by Nancy Robinette, in the final scenes is hilarious.
The play runs through October 22, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays and noon matinees on Thursdays. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or on line at www.fordstheatre.org.