The Keegan Theatre’s current production of Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man is solid entertainment in the best sense of the word. Never having read the play or having seen any previous stage production, I had thought that I was going to see a political satire or a polemical and specialized piece of theatre –based on the essays I had read by Mr. Vidal. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to hear and experience such a cleverly constructed and well-written play that absorbs ones attention from beginning to end with a succession of brilliant lines and twists and turns. Performed by an exceptional cast and burnished with meticulous technical oversight and attention to detail, The Best Man is the most completely satisfying production I have ever seen at The Keegan Theatre.
The political maneuvering and motivations of two candidates, the liberal former Secretary-of-State William Russell (Mark A. Rhea) and the more bombastic conservative Senator Joseph Cantwell (Colin Smith), as they seek the presidential nomination of their party in the Philadelphia of Summer 1960 and seek the endorsement of the current sitting President Arthur Hockstader (Kevin Adams) is the spine of the play. Themes of image versus reality, idealism versus pragmatism and expediency versus integrity are explored throughout and echo real-life political scenarios and figures from the past (like Adlai Stevenson and Senator Joseph McCarthy). Themes also foreshadow relevant realities of today such as the sexual proclivities of certain politicos and the expulsion of Senator Thomas Eagleton as the Vice–Presidential nominee on the McGovern ticket of 1972 (due to mental illness).
Co-Directors Timothy H. Lynch and Christina A. Coakley propel the actors through their paces with vigor and seamless efficiency. The more humorous scenes blend together organically with the more dramatic moments. Lynch and Coakley do a superb job of establishing the tone of the play as it straddles the cynical components of politics with the more idealistic segments.
Garrulous and earthy, Kevin Adams steals the show as the tough-minded but physically infirmed President Hockstader. As he pours another glass of bourbon and branch water while uttering bawdy remarks, one can’t help but be impressed by his acting authority; Adams appears to be channeling the vulgarity of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with the political expediency of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Susan Marie Rhea as Mrs. (Mabel) Cantwell is also superb and is perfectly cast in her part. Rena Cherry Brown as the National Chairwoman Sue-Ellen Gamadge delivers another jewel of a performance. Michael Innocenti delivers a nicely nuanced performance as Sheldon Marcus – the person who may or may not bring down one of the candidates. Sheri Herren is quietly charming and self-effacing in her role as Alice Russell.
As the two dueling political candidates seeking endorsement, Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith are both well-cast and especially stand out in the scene where they are alone on stage testing each other’s limits and fear of disclosures and dark secrets from their past.
Michael Innocenti is also to be credited with the stellar and functional Scenic Design that consists of dark, heavy mahogany furniture set against two adjoining adjacent entranceways and topped off with a raised central platform that specific characters are lit against. Lighting Design by Katie McCreary is top-notch on all levels. Costume Design by Erin Nugent very accurately conveys the look of the 1960s. The Sound Design by Dan Dieter was continually surprising and provocative.
The Keegan Theatre has outdone itself with The Best Man. Regardless of your political persuasion, you will want to cast your vote for this exceptional production of The Best Man!
Running Time: Two Hours and thirty-minutes, including one intermission.