One of the greatest compliments an actor can receive is that he/she “inhabited the role.” It is my estimation that no one deserves that assessment more than IRT veteran David Alan Anderson, who stars in “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” on the Upperstage at Indiana Repertory Theatre. I attended Friday’s opening night performance of this fascinating play written by playwright-in-residence James Still who is celebrating his 20th year with the IRT.
This is the third time IRT has presented the drama based on the life of Alonzo Fields, a native of Lyles Station, Indiana. He was the White House chief butler serving Presidents Hebert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower and their families. Anderson also played Fields the second time the IRT presented it in 2008.
A sharp-eyed witness to a large chunk of 20th century American history, Fields met kings, queens, diplomats and movie stars. Not only observing history in the making, he also knew all the personal habits, needs and proclivities of the White House residents he served, such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who enjoyed a daily tumbler of sherry for breakfast and forbade whistling anywhere near him. Trained as a classical singer, Fields fell into his job during the Great Depression when he couldn’t find work in his chosen profession. Always intending to perform again, he eventually accepted that service was, in a way, an art form and an honorable one at that.
Anderson’s portrayal, directed expertly by Janet Allen, of Fields’s intimate account of his White House years was a study in focus, concentration, nuance and, of course, endurance. Performing the role previously at IRT as well as in other productions around the country probably gives Anderson an advantage, but he is still all alone on stage, operating without a net. No easy task for even the most experienced, talented actors, both of which he certainly is, but Anderson did it with commitment and aplomb, capturing Fields’s elegance, dignity, integrity and most importantly, his loyalty to a country that didn’t always value him and members of his race.
Not wishing to spoil the show’s conclusion, I won’t reveal the ending, but I can tell you it was one of the most dramatic moments I have ever seen on any stage. But here’s a hint: If you like Schubert’s “Ave Maria” as much as I do, then you will be as equally moved as I was.
Finally, if you see the show (IRT’s 500th production), like me, you may wonder what the cultured Fields’s observations might be regarding the White House’s present occupant. No doubt he is turning in his grave.
“Looking Over the President’s Shoulder” continues its run through May 6. For tickets, call (317) 635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.