Rarely has a performance stirred my soul and sparked my patriotism as profoundly as "JQA" — the stunning, superb, ever-so-timely, four-person play on stage at the Gamm Theatre through Nov. 17.
"JQA" — subtitled "A Series of Fictitious Encounters Between President John Quincy Adams & Sundry Family Members and Political Associates on the Subjects of Life, Liberty and Government" — is one of those plays that will stay with you, make you think, make you wonder, and get you talking ... about American history, the role of government and the idea of democracy. It will also leave you considering the toll a life of public service takes upon the families of a public servant.
"JQA" will also make you laugh (at times,) and will leave you with a slight sense of hope. And thank God, the name "Quincy" is pronounced properly throughout. (yes, it's "QuinZee.")
This riveting play also does a terrific job of reminding us — with every thoughtful, well-crafted sentence — of the fragility and messiness of democracy — a healthy reminder in these dark times for our nation — and of the noble ideals of our foremothers and fathers.
Written by noted American playwright Aaron Posner, and directed by Gamm Artistic Director Tony Estrella, "JQA," which is making its New England debut, moves rapidly from 1776 — when we first meet Adams as a gum-chewing nine-year-old — to 1847 when we see "Old Man Eloquent" as a thoughtful, introspective, 80 year-old.
In a series of 10 short, sharply-directed vignettes, the four impressive actors — Normand Beauregard, Candice Brown, Jonathan Higginbotham and Helena Tafuri — take turns playing Adams in the various stages of his life. Each actor also plays one or more of the other Early American luminaries Adams interacts with; John Adams and Henry Clay (Beauregard;) George Washington, Abigail Adams and Louisa Adams (Brown;) Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass (Higginbotham) and Louisa Adams and Abraham Lincoln (Tafuri.) The actors, each dressed in the same basic uniform (brown boots, khaki-colored trousers and white shirts,) help one another change into either a period jacket or skirt which signifies their new character, along with hats, neck pieces, eye glasses and scarves.
Meg Donnelly's costumes are gorgeous and Michael McGarty's simple, star-spangled red, white and blue set featuring a well-placed Windsor chair or an Early American writing desk here and there, is the perfect match.
Brown, in her Gamm debut, is brilliant in each of her roles. When, as Abigail Adams, she reminds her son, that "to do good and to be good is the whole duty of man," a soft but universal sigh spread through the audience.
"What do you say, John?" she asks a young John Quincy Adams while playing George Washington and urging Adams to accept the post of Minister to the Netherlands, "Do you want to change the world?"
"I suspect you have a long, fascinating journey ahead of you," she predicts when he accepts the position. Adams, of course, a staunch opponent of slavery and a staunch supporter of free speech, went on to become the sixth president of the United States of America. He also served as secretary of state, the first U.S. minister to Russia, helped negotiate the peace agreement ending the War of 1812 with Britain, and served nine post-presidential terms in Congress from 1830 until his death in 1848.
We also get a visit from a Jack Daniels-swigging Henry Clay (Beauregard is excellent) who reminds Adams of "The C word," (compromise) and its necessity in a "fractious, fractured America."
"If you don’t learn to compromise," Clay tells President Adams in one of the more humorous lines of the night, "you’re going to be playing more golf than governing."
Higginbotham, also making his Gamm debut, is outstanding in each of his roles. As the populist newly-elected President Andrew Jackson, he swaggers around the audience bragging about his slaves being "my own damn business." But the showstopper comes while Higginbotham, now playing the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass and wearing a wig that gives him an astounding resemblance to Douglass, asks Adams to imagine what his life would have been like had he, too, been born as an enslaved black man.
"Do more, Mr. Adams," he says, "please."
Again, the sighs from the audience were audible. As they were again at the end of the 90-minute play, when Tafuri (who plays a heart-breakingly poignant Louisa Adams in an earlier scene) is the young junior congressman from Illinois, who arrives in Adams' office wearing his tall, black stovepipe hat. Repeating a version of the wisdom his own mother imparted to him earlier, Adams — now played by Brown — speaks to Abraham Lincoln about the "duty of man."
"Do good, Mr. Lincoln," says Brown as the sounds of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" fills the theater.
If I had my way, every high school student, every college history class and every politician in the state would have the chance to see this play. Actually, it would behoove every American to be reminded of the sacrifices made by the founders and their families to make sure our young nation would survive.