Review: ‘A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan’ at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

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Truth be known, there is much about Ronald Reagan that is eminently unlikeable: his shameless embrace of the southern, “State’s Rights” strategy, his contempt for social welfare programs, his blind faith in “trickle-down economics” when anyone with a brain knew it was a sham, his willful neglect of the AIDS pandemic until it took Rock Hudson, one of his old Hollywood buddies, and the list goes on.

John Keabler in A Late Morning (in America) with Ronald Reagan. Photo by Seth Freeman.

And yet – and yet.  In spite of numerous disasters on the domestic front, many of us are coming around to the notion that his aggressive stance on the Soviet Union – the Communist, totalitarian dictatorship which fell soon after his presidency ended – actually succeeded in preventing a devastating, humanity-destroying world war.

So if you’re going to create an engaging one-man show that promotes the idea of Reagan as a visionary who – in at least one instance – had his head screwed on right, his unique relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would have to be the way to go.

It doesn’t hurt that as Reagan himself, actor John Keabler’s tall, lanky frame and perfect hair, his calm demeanor, and irresistible charm, make it easy to like a man whose legacy is in reality quite complex.

Michael Weller, a regular at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, has crafted an engaging little show about Ronald Reagan in the twilight of his life, just before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease would overtake much of his memory.  In this one-man show, A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan, we see the former President responding to one last interview request from an obscure equestrian magazine, trying to charm an (unseen) reporter with tall tales from his youth and recounting the many changes he rang down through his career.

John Keabler in A Late Morning (in America) with Ronald Reagan. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The framing device is deceptively but movingly simple; we are aware, through voice-overs, that his wife Nancy has just received the diagnosis they both dread, and Weller skillfully inserts those scattered, seemingly minor lapses of memory and repetitions that hint at the mental decline to come.

Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi has created a hauntingly rhythmic, layered set in pure white — even the tchotchkes on the wall are white — which evokes both the antiseptic atmosphere of the hospital and the nearness of Reagan’s final decline.  Illustrating the many changes and personalities Reagan encountered, Projection Designers Christopher Erbe and Taran Schatz have devised a fascinating sequence of images which, along with some fine voice-over work from a large (pre-recorded) supporting cast, bring many of the most memorable episodes of America’s 20th century to life.

Director Sam Weisman has made the most of the simple concept behind this show and the result is a surprisingly sympathetic look at the man. He has found a very powerful way to communicate America’s recent history, and A Late Morning (In America) offers useful insights into the character of a man who guided us through the end of the Cold War.  Love him or hate him, this Reagan is well worth the visit.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan runs through July 29, 2018, at the Studio 112 space at Shepherd University – 92 W Campus Drive, in Shepherdstown, WV. For tickets, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or purchase them online.

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