Political dirty tricks heat up in 'The Best Man'

Posted Online: Nov. 08, 2012, 11:36 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com
You may think this year's $2 billion presidential campaign got brutal, but it didn't get as personally nasty as the fictional battle for the nomination in "The Best Man," the 1960 Gore Vidal play being given a tense, highly charged production at Rock Island's District Theatre.

Featuring a stellar, sensitive cast, the political drama is directed with intelligence and compassion by Bryan Tank. It stars Pat Flaherty as the folksy ex-president, Arthur Hockstader; Matt Mercer as the intellectual, ethical William Russell; and Jonathan Grafft as his foe, the cold, calculating Joseph Cantwell.

In the summer of 1960 inPhiladelphia, the more liberal Mr. Russell, a former secretary of state and philanderer who's had a mental breakdown, is at the Democratic convention fighting the slimy, sanctimonious Mr. Cantwell, a populist Southern senator who'll do anything to win. Both men are seeking the former president's endorsement. The story takes place entirely in a hotel where the nominees plot strategy with their campaign managers and wives.

As usual, Mr. Flaherty is colorful, outgoing and totally relatable in his role. President Hockstader plays the two candidates off each other, and he presses them unmercifully on why they deserve his support. His pleading and lecturing are electrifying.

Mr. Mercer's role is somewhat based on the presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson (whom Gore Vidal apparently admired), and Mr. Russell clearly comes across as a more sympathetic, heroic and likable character. Mr. Russell is not religious, and doesn't believe in the hereafter, but his guiding principles are humane and decent. It's hard to imagine him serially cheating on his wife, Alice (played with conniving cynicism by Denise Yoder).

The dark psychiatric history of Mr. Russell is discovered by the monstrous, scheming Mr. Cantwell, who's played with chilling efficiency by Mr. Grafft. Mr. Vidal, a prolific writer who just died this summer, modeled this candidate partly after Richard Nixon and partly after the Kennedys. You can see the ruthless, dirty tricks that serve as primary tools in Mr. Cantwell's playbook. While he is religious, the bitter man also is amoral.

The gauntlet of 'The Best Man" is thrown down when Mr. Russell pursues a rumor heard from a former Army colleague of Mr. Cantwell (the nervous, frightened Sheldon Marcus, played by Bryan Woods). He accuses the married senator of being gay. Mr. Russell doesn't want to use the information, but sees it as his only chance to prevent Mr. Cantwell from bringing him down. It's the political equivalent of nuclear war.

The very literate, wise play raises many thought-provoking questions, including: Does a candidate's private life have any bearing on his or her ability to lead? If we had known about JFK's affairs while he was in office, would we think less of him?

The influential, uppity Sue Ellen Gamadge (Susan Perrin-Sallak) argues that personal business should remain private, and President Hockstader says that "a lot of men need a lot of women," and there are worse faults than infidelity. President Bill Clinton -- who escaped impeachment in 1999 -- is proof of this.

Even in the "good old days" of 52 years ago, we see how politics is a game, full of mudslinging and compromises, and how it affects the actual human beings who play it. Much of "The Best Man" takes place out of public view, so just imagine how much goes on behind the scenes that we don't see.

The excellent cast includes the bubbly, effusive Jessica Nichol-White as Mr. Cantwell's wife and Ed Villarreal and Danny White, a frequent District Theatre music director, as the competent, often frustrated campaign managers.

Politics as an unsavory blood sport has been around as long as the republic, apparently. In the campaign of1800, Thomas Jefferson paid a journalist to write that his opponent, John Adams, was a mentally unbalanced hermaphrodite, while Mr. Adams spread the word that a victory for Mr. Jefferson would mean "murder, rape and robbery in the streets." President Obama and massive debt don't look so bad now, do they?

If you

-- What: "The Best Man."
-- When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Nov. 15-17, 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 18.
-- Where: The District Theatre, 1611 2nd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $15. Call (309) 235-1654 or email tristan@districttheatre.com.


Local events heading

  Today is Wednesday, Oct. 1, the 274th day of 2014. There are 91 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: It is rumored in the streets that the 13 negroes sent to Quincy on the Moline quota were refused. We think this must be a mistake.
1889 -- 125 years ago: Harvey McKenna, of Detroit, billiard player matched to play Wizard Schafer in New York in January for the world championship, was a professional friend and manager, Billy Catton in Rock Island.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Levi Cralle, former Rock Island county sheriff, had come from his farm near Mitchell, S.D. to visit friends in the city.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Work is being rushed on the new high school building in Orion to replace the one destroyed by fire last winter. Classes are being held in churches.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Rehearsals for the 84th season of the Handel Oratorio Society chorus will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on the stage of Centennial Hall, Augustana College.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Rock Island City Council's plan announced this week to have the federal government vacate Valley Homes public housing and move residents to Arsenal Courts to reduce density may not be feasible.

(More History)