By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
”Loss of innocence“ is one of those romantic phrases writers and historians love to bandy about as though, in a national context at least, it actually means something. Some say that America lost her innocence during the Civil War; others, at the Rosenbergs‘ trial, the Vietnam War or, according to novelist-playwright Donald Freed, on the day JFK was gunned down in Dallas. The subsequent Warren Commission Report on the assassination -- acquitting the FBI and the CIA of any criminal involvement -- triggered what Freed describes as ”a rip tide of disbelief and dissent“ on the nation’s college campuses. This theme is the basis of Freed and Mark Lane‘s book, Executive Action, adapted for the screen by Dalton Trumbo in David Miller’s 1973 film, long before JFK was even a twinkle in Oliver Stone‘s eye.
Pivotal national paroxysms, like the killing of a president or the murder trial of a celebrity football player, are treated as social and political traumas that are somehow turning points in the collective maturing of a citizenry, rather than just more droplets in history’s relentless Niagara of duplicity and murder. As though our country is somehow a more cynical place today, because of the sham the Warren Commission Report appears to be, than when pioneers and the Sioux exchanged gunfire on the Dakota plains; or when lynch mobs roamed Mississippi; or, during WWII, when Du Pont and General Motors made trade and research agreements with the German company I.G. Farber and, by extension, with the Nazis; or when Al Capone ran Chicago. As though America, or any other civilization, was ever innocent.
At the philosophical heart of Donald Freed‘s infinitely fascinating epic fantasia-with-music, American Iliad (receiving its premiere at Burbank’s Victory Theater), lies the wobbly premise that on November 22, 1963, the day we lost JFK, America lost her innocence. Freed never uses that phrase, but it‘s floating in the stage light nonetheless.
In an early scene, a deranged and dying Richard Nixon (Al Rossi) -- the play’s central character -- meets the silver-haired, incontinent and wheelchair-bound phantom of JFK (David Clennon) on some Greek island. ”Jack,“ Nixon pleads with quivering jowls, ”I have to know -- who killed you?“ After he reflects for a moment, Kennedy‘s chuckle escalates into hysterical laughter, eventually shared by Nixon, prompting Nixon to repeat the question. Eventually Kennedy puts mirth aside: ”[Hoover] said I was shot -- and the others -- so that you . . . you or somebody like you . . . would become president!“
”Jack,“ Nixon continues. ”That’s why I finally had to come here, to see for myself, to find out the truth, to hear it, to prove it wasn‘t me who did it . . . [who] killed the country -- blew its brains out!“
One might argue that the viewpoint in which the character of Nixon assesses JFK’s assassination as the moment of America‘s demise should not be confused with Freed’s viewpoint -- an argument supported by Nixon‘s own dialogue referring to his father: ”Nobody remembers a fucking thing . . . It all died with Lincoln. All over by 1870, the old man told me.“
However, Freed juxtaposes Nixon’s dystopian visages and words with scenes, sprinkled throughout the play, of a straw-hatted, hymn-singing ensemble, representing members of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, characterized by Walt Whitmanesque ideals, on Independence Day, 1900. (The Circle was formed to revive hope after the Civil War‘s ravages.)
”What a fellowship, what a joy divine . . . What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms,“ they sing in unison.
For these scenes, Rossi’s Nixon morphs into the Music Man: His posture straightens, his gait lightens, even the watery glaze in his eyes appears to transform into a sparkle. No matter who says it was all over by 1870, the uplift provided by these scenes and the music‘s defiance of gravity demonstrate the opposite. Here is the embodiment of national innocence, of America in her youth, the very exuberance gutted by the elder Nixon’s Beckett-like ramblings on a golf course in purgatory.
A play‘s point of view comes not from the words but from the situations that provoke them. The situations, the very structure of American Iliad says, over and over: innocence lost, which implies a certain innocence to be lost, which renders Freed’s play something of a romantic fallacy -- though a very shrewd, funny and insightful fallacy. I‘d certainly go back and see it again.
The play opens on July 4, 2000, with the ”90-year-old“ Nixon on the aforementioned golf course (a bare stage, walled with flats painted in angled strips of Old Glory -- set by Tom Ormeny). Most of the props are mimed, but not all: A bar and drinks are left to the audience’s imagination; not so the tape recorder into which Nixon rambles non sequiturs, as in Freed‘s earlier Nixon homage, Secret Honor -- as in Beckett’s Krapp‘s Last Tape, from which Iliad’s blend of wit, nostalgia and pathos seems inspired. A golf bag toted around by Nixon‘s caddie, Roberto (Marco Pelaez), inscribed with ”Property of the U.S. Government,“ is also a touch of the touchable that director Maria Gobetti didn’t want to dispense with, doubtless for its spark of whimsy.