PRESIDENTIAL PERFORMANCE: Clifton Truman Daniel captures his grandfather, Harry Truman, exceptionally
Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts Cube Theatre Project, under the direction of Tony Rivenbark, opened the most anticipated show of the year last weekend: Sam Gallu’s “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” It stars Clifton Truman Daniel, who used to live in Wilmington and play on the local theatre scene, as well as work as a reporter for Star News. Daniel is playing his well-known grandfather, Harry Truman, in the show—one that has garnered a lot of advance attention for a variety of reasons. It is billed as the first time in US history that a president is portrayed on stage by his own grandson, which is really a fascinating and tantalizing idea.
Gallu’s script is a two-hour tour de force for one performer. All presidential administrations encompass multiple complicated issues. Somehow Truman’s feels packed with significant events: the atomic bomb and end of WWII, post-war economy, the Korean War, recognition of the State of Israel, segregation, The Marshall Plan, McCarthyism, corruption scandals, and a series of union/management disputes that threatened the national economy. That’s a lot of material to cover in two hours—not to mention showing audiences first-hand the man, his family, and telling the story of how he got there.
Gallu gives the sense that we all are on a personally invited tour that Truman is offering of his daily life. James Whitmore, who made the show famous, was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his performance and won the GRAMMY for its spoken-word recording. Daniel is not playing Whitmore playing Truman; that is clear from the beginning. The Missouri accent is toned down, and easier to understand than Whitmore’s, and Daniel projects much less the boxer keyed up before the big fight and more the marathoner prepared to go the distance.
Part of what makes Truman one of our more enduring and respected presidents is the sense he was a no-nonsense kind of guy, who spoke plainly and did what his conscience told him was right. (Many of the anecdotes in Gallu’s script appear in “Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman” by Merle Miller.) All that folksiness aside, he really was the consummate politician, who could persuade anyone to his way of thinking with charm, warmth and a skill that was remarkably effective. Though plenty of scenes at the White House illustrate this, it is actually when he is home in Independence, Missouri, that we see it so clearly. The president is home visiting, and he is cutting the grass on Sunday morning. Now, he doesn’t really want to cut the grass, but he has figured out how to do a little visiting with his neighbors and constituents, while ensuring his wife will never ask him to cut the grass again. It is incredibly charming, genuine and honestly quite a beautiful moment of human psychology and family-life in action. There—when Daniel smiles knowingly to the audience before he walks back inside the house—is the moment we see the man who knows how to win, and knows every battle is a political one, no matter how small. He shows us the secret, and we are free to use it any time. It came across over and over again throughout the evening with Daniel onstage: He really was holding back the curtain for us to see something, and we had been chosen to share the secret because we would understand. In essence, we are his buddies.
One-sided conversations are difficult onstage. With a telephone in hand, they work better but with other people in the room that the audience can’t see, they can be difficult to sell. Daniel, however, manages to convince us at times he is talking with as many as four people at once in the same room. It takes a lot of skill to make that convincing. Daniel excels with this—from conversations with Herbert Hoover and the Ghost of FDR, to meetings about the possibility of nationalizing the railroads, to campaign stops, he makes each person he is speaking with come alive.
Truman is a much-quoted president, partly because he used a direct, at times vulgar, highly masculine language that leaves no room for a rejoinder—and that appeals to everyone who would like to shut down a bully and prove themselves right. Each time he dropped one of his famous quotes, Daniel would give a small smile and check with the audience to make sure we still were buddies. Because this is a tough world, and we have to go through it together, even when we might not always agree with each other. His Truman clearly loves a good joke, and he likes it even better if someone shares it with him. If he is the only one laughing this time, so be it. Next time we’ll share the joke and it will be OK again.
Daniel does not present this work as nostalgic or as a museum piece. This is filled with urgency and immediacy. Indeed much of what Truman faced during his lifetime and his presidency is very timely. Korea dominates our headlines. Russian interference in our government is still a topic of concern. In Truman’s day, it was Alger Hiss, Whitaker Chambers and Joseph McCarthy, and questions of how the Soviets got an atomic bomb so quickly after we developed it. The timeliness is almost terrifying, but Daniel approaches it with such warmth and empathy, we really want to trust him to find a way out of this. It’s a reminder of what leadership by word and deeds look like.
Part of the allure of seeing Clifton Truman Daniel portray his grandfather is the sense he will show us something private about the man we never saw. I did leave with the feeling I touched something special—that I was part of a moment with Daniel and Harry Truman. It is a remarkably complex and powerful performance that he gifts the audience.
Next weekend, on October 20, “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” moves from the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre to the Main Stage for one night. Buy tickets to this show. It will stay with audiences for the rest of their lives.