Review: 46 PLAYS FOR AMERICA'S FIRST LADIES At NextStop Theatre Company

NextStop delivers history with a touch of theatrics as it turns the spotlight on America's First Ladies

By: Jan. 30, 2023
Review: 46 PLAYS FOR AMERICA'S FIRST LADIES At NextStop Theatre Company
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Telling stories about the President of the United States is not a new concept, and the American theatre is certainly no stranger to the idea. Within the canon, we have 1776, Assassins, and, of course, the more recent smash-hit musical, Hamilton. Theatre-goers are familiar with theatrical portrayals of the Commander in Chief, which makes NextStop Theatre Company's production of 46 Plays for America's First Ladies all that more unique.

46 Plays for America's First Ladies shifts the focus away from the well-publicized and oft told stories of the 45 men who have ascended to the Presidency of the United States and over to the women who have stood beside (or perhaps behind) them. The title given to these women, that of First Lady, is harder to define concretely than one might assume. Is she a hostess? A diplomat? A figurehead? The answer is all of the above and technically none as well depending on who you ask.

This play reinforces those notions with phrases like "a First Lady is not an official title" and notes it's "a job that doesn't technically exist." By the way, if I had use of the handy "DIRECT QUOTE" light up signs on either side of the stage during the performance, I'd use them now. But I digress.

We can all probably recall several First Ladies, so it seems odd that there exists such ambiguity around the role. Within this context, the play spends a little over two hours coloring in what this unofficial and description-less title means and how women throughout history have filled the role. It also importantly gives voice to women historically forced out of the spotlight and, in some cases, hidden behind a powerful man.

The play starts, as one would imagine, with the original first lady, Martha Washington, and concludes with the most recent, Dr. Jill Biden. In between, we cover the 44 remaining administrations, but (spoiler) the math doesn't quite add up as we meet more than 46 women each with a unique story to tell. The extra numbers come from a variety of sources like multiple partners throughout the administration, a niece who took on the role in the absence of a wife, and even slaves whose legacies (or lack thereof) were deeply entwined with that of the president they served.

Marching through the decades is a whirlwind affair as the ensemble cast of five (more on this talented group of performers later) creates vignettes of varying lengths to tell this nearly 250-year history. Though an admirable attempt, the material cannot possibly give equal value to all 46 administrations. This is most evident when telling the stories of First Ladies like Caroline Harrison, Lucy Hayes, and Bess Truman. Their plays whizz by at such a feverish pace that one could easily miss the stories entirely. In one self-aware moment, the performers even address this elephant in the room saying that in some cases both the information and the person have been reduced.

On the other hand, several vignettes work quite well. The stand-up comedy show-like setting of Jane Pierce is equal parts educational and entertaining as is Edith Wilson's cabaret-inspired song. Among the strongest of the vignettes, however, is that of Florence Harding, whom audiences learn is anecdotally credited with the origin of the 'photo op' or staged photo for the press. These three plays were simple, short, and effective - a recipe that is unfortunately not consistent throughout the piece.

It is true that 46 Plays has a lot of ground to cover, which could explain the above pitfalls. It especially demands a great deal from the artists who take it on. Director Megan Behm adequately handles the arduous task of guiding the sometimes-incoherent piece through several styles of theatre, music, and dance. The subtle choreography of Janine Baumgardner assists well here, and the dance helps not hinders the action. It is, however, this ensemble that deserves special mention as each performer inhabits a dizzying myriad of First Ladies, presidents, various historical figures, puppeteers, and seemingly everything in between.

Morganne Chu, Sydney Johnson, Brittany Martz, Nicole Ruthmarie, and Emily Sucher are luckily up to the challenge. They function well as an ensemble and, thankfully, each gets their chance to shine. Martz is particularly adept at this kind of work creating unique characters you could write entire sketches around, and the audience is treated to her terrific vocals and even more notable comedic chops as a bonus. It's a big lift for all five, but they handle the material with the grace, laughs, and respect it deserves.

Much like the United States and the many women who have served as First Lady, the play is complicated and full of contradictions. It is just as much of a comedy as it is a stark reminder of the unfortunate legacies of United States history. You may laugh, you may cry, you may be upset, and, hopefully, you may be forced to think. As complicated as their legacies may be, the First Ladies have voices that are being heard at NextStop Theatre Company.

As the play reminds us, "men fail, women get forgotten." With more stories like 46 Plays for America's First Ladies in the ether, perhaps it won't be long before that quote no longer rings true.

46 Plays for America's First Ladies runs at NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, VA from now until February 19th. The play is directed by Megan Behm with choreography by Janine Baumgardner. The creative team includes Megan Holden (Scenic Design), Hailey LaRoe (Lighting Design), Imari Pyles (Costume Design), Delaney Bray (Sound Design), Taylor Verrett (Projections/Media Design), and Liz Long (Properties Design). The play was originally written by Chloe Johnston, Sharon Greene, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, and Andy Bayiates.

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