No matter what side of the political aisle you prefer, I think everyone would agree that we’re living through a truly astonishing moment right now. With partisanship, populism and acrimony coursing through every single day, it certainly feels like our country is facing truly unprecedented challenges, and it’s understandable to wonder if it can withstand what’s already happened, and what’s to come.
With real life providing such a bleak backdrop, The Gamm Theatre’s excellent and revealing new production of JQA provided a wonderful and uplifting breath of fresh air, as it reminds us of America’s fractious past and offers a positive message that a solution is possible, whether from this generation or the next.
JQA is the story of John Quincy Adams, an arrogant and earnest man who ultimately didn’t factor very heavily in shaping our country, but whose life spanned the birth of our nation right up until the eve of the Civil War when it almost came crashing down. Presented as a series of fictional interactions he might have had with the great thinkers of his day (from an older Washington to a young Lincoln), JQA gradually reveals itself, first as a character study, then as an entertaining lesson in early US history, and, finally, as a surprisingly poignant allegory for modern times.
The play opens with a young John Quincy (Helena Tafuri) attempting to carve an identity for himself out of his father’s immense shadow, both as a rebellious child, and then as a fresh-faced lawyer who would only consider a plush new job offered by the (first) president himself if it’s offered due to his merits, and not as a family favor.
We then transition to a mid-career JQA (Jonathan Higginbotham) as he struggles as a senator arguing with his wife, Louisa, about his dual duties to his family and country, and then again as a new president arguing with his former rival (and current secretary of state), Henry Clay, about the need for compromise, both in policy and in principle. This is the section of the play where the viewer first senses a true connection to the modern day, as we witness a clearly intelligent man struggle to do what he knows is right, even if it might cost him everything to do so.
The play then moves to the darkest periods of JQA’s life, as a now-vanquished president (Normand Beauregard) is forced to confront professional tragedy in the guise of his less intelligent and capable successor, Andrew Jackson, and personal tragedy as he and his wife cope with devastating loss together.
Finally, the play transitions to the twilight of JQA’s career, as the by now ancient senator (Candice Brown) is forced to see the darkest truth about our still-young country through a conversation with abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and ultimately to see a way forward, through an interaction with a young and idealistic senator from Illinois.
Playwright Aaron Posner initially conceived of this play in 2016, when he (and everyone else) thought we were about to enter a Jeb Bush/Hillary Clinton election. He wanted to explore the tumultuous period of time between America’s founding and the Civil War, and was interested in the role of political dynasties, both then and now. But while the shape and structure of the play might have remained the same over the intervening years, current events have unquestionably altered its themes, and its impact.
JQA is filled with moments that bring the past hurtling up to the present. Some of them are played for laughs (when JQA’s wife Louisa is first brought on stage, she is introduced as “America’s only foreign-born first lady until … recently.”), while others are more subtle, but no less impactful. When Henry Clay (Normand Beauregard) laughs at JQA’s unwillingness to compromise his good ideas in order to get things done, it foreshadows a world where progress is actively thwarted as a political weapon. When incoming President Andrew Jackson (Jonathan Higginbotham) swaggers into the Oval Office chewing tobacco and lecturing about how the people want personality over policies, it helps to contextualize just what is happening to us currently. And finally, when JQA sees a bright future through the passion of Senator Abraham Lincoln (Helena Tafuri), it serves as a reminder that if we got through those times, then this too shall pass.
All four performers in the production did a phenomenal job inhabiting both the lead role and all of the supporting characters who surround him. The switching never felt like a “stunt,” but rather as a natural way to allow us to flow through the years, and see this singular figure at multiple stages of his life.
The creative team wisely took a low-key approach to their work, allowing the performers (along with this marvelous script) to shine. With only a few chairs and set pieces, along with brilliantly understated lighting, set designer Michael McGarty and lighting designer Steve McLellan seamlessly take us from location to location. Costume designer Meg Donnelly provided JQA with a signature red suit to clearly show who is playing (or taking over) the titular role, and gave the supporting characters certain well-defined pieces (like an iconic hairpiece or stovepipe hat) to help us understand immediately who we’re meeting, without distracting us from what they have to say. And director Tony Estrella provided countless deft touches to ensure that every performer (and thus, every facet of JQA’s life) was given equal weight and importance.
These might be tumultuous times, but JQA helps us to see that they are not unprecedented, and we are not without hope. What more can you possibly ask from a night out at the theater?
The Gamm Theatre presents JQA through Nov 17. 1245 Jefferson Blvd, Warwick. Call 401-723-GAMM or visit gammtheatre.org for tickets.