Heating Up the Best Man
By Guest Staff Reviewer Wil Kahele
Set in the Philadelphia primaries in the summer of 1960, two men vie for the Presidential nomination of their party. Former Secretary of State William Russell, played by David Farmer, is the likable, honest, candidate running against southern senator Joseph Cantwell, a man of questionable motives, played by Al Lanier. Both candidates seek the endorsement of outgoing President Arthur Hoksteder (Peter Clark). We get a glimpse into the candidates’ personal lives. Their indiscretions. Their secrets. But which candidate will get the endorsement? What skeletons will they pull from the other’s closet to secure the party nomination? There are parallels recognized in this play to the 1960 Democratic Convention. Mr. Vidal is said to have modeled the character of William Russell as an homage to Adlai Stevenson. The character of Joseph Cantwell is said to be an amalgam of John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy-all whom Mr. Vidal despised for what he saw as having devious and publicity seeking political aspirations.
This is a play that should have all the sway and excitement of this past Democratic National Convention between Sanders and Clinton. Both sides present different views of the same party. Good against evil. Darkness versus light. The race is heated, palatable. Unfortunately on this night, this story was more of a steady simmer that didn’t quite warm up to the boiling heat it deserved. At times the production rolled along nicely but with lines being misspoken and stumbled upon, momentum was lost and regaining speed was difficult and became hard to follow. All things considered however, the cast was amazing, pulling together to tell the story.
Garrett Hols as Senator Clyde Carlin brought a very charismatic swag to his characterization making him a delight to watch. Ann Brandman as Alice Russell and Amy K. Sullivan as Mabel Cantwell were both charming and believable as the candidates’ wives. Sullivan especially has some very nice moments bringing depth to her southern bred potential first lady. Farmer gives light and soul to William Russell with Lanier lending to the darkside of Senator Cantwell. Rounding out the main players were Stu Hirayama and K.C. O’dell as Dick Jensen and Don Blades respectively, the candidates campaign managers. It was fun watching their characters’ glee and frustration run back and forth throughout the play. Clark as outgoing President Hocksteder gives a convincing performance as a man seeking a successor to his party and political legacy. Cecilia Fordham gives a glamorous turn as party vice chair, Sue Ellen Gamadge.
Director Kevin Keaveney does an amazing job leading this large cast of thirteen through each scene. All the players move collectively and with purpose. His use and design of the set along with Andy Alvarado, is inventive and refreshing allowing for clear and quick transitions using the whole cast at one time or another. The preshow 1960s music and radio PSA’s reflect the sounds and feel of that time. Costumes by Chris Valles are on point and reminiscent to the period with colors and textures helping to immerse the viewer into a bygone era. With the current political climate moving toward what is likely an historic November Presidential election, the presentation of this play couldn’t be more timely. The shady and unscrupulous dealings of Mr. Vidal’s political vision of almost sixty years ago is practically innocent and trumped when compared to the weight of the political mud being slung today. The Best Man plays for one more weekend at The Actors Group at Dole Cannery closing Sunday September 25.