BWW Review: SHE DID ALL THAT - BETTY FORD: SPEAKING OUT, SAVING LIVES Premieres at Boston Playwrights' Theatre

BWW Review: SHE DID ALL THAT - BETTY FORD: SPEAKING OUT, SAVING LIVES Premieres at Boston Playwrights' Theatre

She Did All That - Betty Ford: Speaking Out, Saving Lives

A documentary play by Lisa Rafferty, Directed by Lisa Rafferty; Scenic Design, Maggie Kearnan; Lighting Design, Daisy Long; Costume Design, Brianna Plummer; Wig Design, Troy Siegfied; Stage Manager, Allison Davis

CAST: Paula Plum, Richard Snee, Robin Abrahams, Erin Eva Butcher, Srin Chakravorty, Dave Daly, Evelyn Holley, Kennedy Elsen, Gabriel Graetz, Tom Grenon, Amie Lytle, Jared Reinfeldt; White House Reporter #1: Joyce Kulhawik (6/28, 7/5), Jayme Parker (6/29, 7/6), Michele Lazcano (6/30, 7/1)

Performances through July 8 by Birch Tree Productions at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Tickets on sale www.BostonPlaywrights.org or OvationTix.com or 866-811-4111

The last time (and perhaps the first time) that I observed the work of Lisa Rafferty onstage was as one half of the duo (with Joey Frangieh) that wrote and produced Finish Line, the powerful and moving theater piece about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. Featuring the voices of survivors, family members, rescue personnel, medical staff, and media, the documentary play was the perfect vehicle to convey the depth and breadth of the story, making it personal, intimate, and compelling. If She Did All That - Betty Ford: Speaking Out, Saving Lives does not attain the high level of the bar set by Finish Line, Rafferty's latest documentary play is an enlightening tribute to one of the giants on the list of First Ladies who was born a century ago.

Many of us remember what a force for good Betty Ford became during and after the years of the presidency of her husband Gerald R. Ford (1974-1976). It was his charge to heal the nation after the ills of the Richard M. Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal. During his inaugural speech, Ford addressed it head on when he stated, "Our long, national nightmare is over." However, if he was designated as healer in chief, Betty took on the mission as her own, as well. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer a mere seven weeks after they moved into the White House, her willingness to make it public and call it what it was (as opposed to the euphemistic term "female problem") brought the illness out of the shadows and into the light of day. As a result, countless women lined up to see their doctors and have mammograms, and a surge in government funding for breast cancer research followed, undoubtedly saving lives.

Betty co-founded the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, in 1982, following her own battle with alcohol and drug dependence. In addition to her advocacy on recovery, she was an early supporter of people with AIDS (when Ronald Reagan had yet to even utter the name of the disease) and the Equal Rights Amendment. She was a Republican feminist, a pairing of words that seems incongruous in 2018, and was committed to causes that put her far ahead of the cultural curve in the latter part of the twentieth century. However, this is what she had to say about what she discovered as an outspoken First Lady: "I'd come to recognize more clearly the power of the woman in the White House. Not my power, but the power of the position, a power which could be used to help." Although they were also educated, intelligent women of substance and valor, it could be said that Betty took the first steps on the road followed by Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.

In She Did All That, Rafferty again employs the conceit of a succession of talking heads to relate Betty's story. Combining her voice with those of family, friends, reporters, White House news accounts, and letters from both critics and admirers, a comprehensive, chronological portrait comes together. In addition to Paula Plum and Richard Snee as the presidential couple, an ensemble of ten actors plays about thirty roles. As a special treat, a real-life journalist is featured in each performance as one of the White House reporters (Joyce Kulhawik on opening night, with Jayme Parker and Michele Lazcano on future dates). All of the Ford children are represented (Amie Lytle bears a resemblance to Susan Ford), as are Morley Safer from "60 Minutes," President Bill Clinton, and celebrities like Grace Slick, Elizabeth Taylor, and Steven Tyler. In a cast that is solid across the board, Robin Abrahams, Erin Eva Butcher, and Kennedy Elsey rise to the top in their ability to differentiate several characters.

As for Plum and Snee, I mention them together because it is their cohesiveness that makes them so successful in portraying the Fords, a loving and genuine team. They put on no airs and, in fact, seem slightly uncomfortable being in the limelight. The Fords didn't ask for their position, but took the responsibilities of their jobs seriously and dispatched them with due respect. Plum and Snee convey a united front, a couple who share the load in their marriage and in public. The President acknowledged that his wife may have been more popular than he, and Snee seems content to hover in the background, looking upon his wife with love and pride. For anyone who may not be aware, Plum and Snee are married in real life and, at times, it is difficult to differentiate whether they are showing the chemistry between Betty and Gerry, or their own special alchemy.

She Did All That gets points for shining the spotlight on Betty Ford's story and accomplishments, especially for younger theatergoers who may be unfamiliar with all that she did. It is bittersweet to revisit the era which, despite all that happened with Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate, feels like a more hopeful time in America. Rafferty celebrates Ford's impact by marching out a parade of men and women to testify about her achievements and glorify her as a person. An historian and a gaggle of reporters provide authenticity, and Plum fervently delivers two or three of Betty's actual speeches. However, the show lacks an emotional wallop, something that defines what made Betty so special as a person. It needs that deeper something to bring it across the finish line.

Photo credit: Maggie Hall Photography (Richard Snee, Paula Plum)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman

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