Someone needs to work on his timing.
Here’s a hypothetical question for you: Say you and your wife have been invited to attend a new play about your absolute favorite president, but it happens to be on the other side of the country. Also, your wife can’t go because she’s pregnant and just 5 weeks from her due date.
What do you do?
Before you answer, let’s add that you’ve actually written an open letter to your wife professing your love for this president so she’s well aware of your feelings. And keep in mind the trip is only two short nights and she’s not due for over a month!
Do you go take a special little trip by yourself to recklessly indulge your passion project – a solo man-babymoon before you’re mired in diapers for the foreseeable future? Or, do you stay put, just in case the inconceivable happens and your baby decides to come 5 weeks early?
If you’re me, you decide to seize the opportunity and go for it.
If you’re my unborn son, you make a similar decision.
I intended to write my review of Aaron Posner’s new play JQA (about the vastly underrated John Quincy Adams) immediately after seeing it. The plan was to publish the review while the play was still, you know, playing. I was typing up my notes in my tiny Washington, D.C. hotel room when I got a call from my mother-in-law — my wife’s water had probably broken and she was headed to the hospital.
I cut my trip short and hopped on the next flight back to Los Angeles early the next morning. Somehow the only seat available was in first class, which might make me the only person on Earth who has spent more to see a play about John Quincy Adams than they spent to see a musical about Alexander Hamilton.
I made it back in time to be with Jess for the birth, and for the fear and helplessness that followed. I kept waiting to hear his little cry after he was born, but he was hardly breathing on his own – just a couple short whimpers. He was rushed to the NICU before Jess got a chance to hold him.
Hours later he was diagnosed with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia; a hole had formed in his diaphragm, and his intestines and many of his organs had slipped through and were taking up space where some of his left lung should have been. He went in for surgery three days after he was born.
Thanks to the amazing staff at UCLA Ronald Reagan (I can’t get away from the presidential connections), our son Beckett’s surgery was a success. Many kids with more severe forms of his condition aren’t as lucky. Beckett took two painfully long weeks to recover in the NICU, and he’s been home now for a couple weeks and is doing remarkably well.
And now it’s time, in my sleep-deprived state, to try to smoothly segue into the review part of this review. I’ve always found that pictures help with transitions.
The strength and warmth of the doctors and the NICU nurses actually reminded me of the central theme of Posner’s play. From a young age, the character of John Quincy Adams is told that the most important thing in life is “to be good and to do good.” It’s a simple concept but it becomes much clearer when everything is stripped away, when you’re focused on life and death and you’re completely at the mercy of people who have dedicated their lives to saving others.
JQA the play was commissioned as one of the Arena Stage’s “Power Plays,” a very cool initiative developing 25 new plays and musicals about American history from 25 writers over the course of 10 years. There were a few things I knew about it going in: It would feature four performers playing JQA throughout his life, it would be comprised solely of two-person conversations from different parts of JQA’s life, and the playwright wanted to make it clear that it is a work of entertainment and is not meant to be historically accurate: “This is a work of art, not of history.”
In many ways that structure and that tenuous relationship with history served the play well, but in some ways I felt it suffered by missing opportunities to develop more focused arcs or dynamics between more than two players. To be fair, this could be because of my desire to see a sprawling Tennessee Williams-style play about the Adams family.
If there was one through line in the play, it was that JQA’s strict parents both shaped his success and led him to be an even more strict parent who failed as much as he succeeded. The groundwork for this was laid out in the first scene, with a 9-year-old John Quincy Adams being unable to articulate what government is and being scolded by his father for setting the cat on fire. This scene for me might have been the greatest missed opportunity.
I don’t mind the artistic liberty of wanton animal cruelty as much as I regret the choice not to portray young JQA as he was known to be – bright and well-spoken. As JQA, Jacqueline Correa is almost completely silent in this scene and serves only to show how domineering the elder John Adams was. We have to learn through other people’s exposition in future scenes that he was brilliant from the get-go; I would have loved to have seen a glimpse of his promise from a young age because that’s one of the most impressive things about him.
JQA does what good historical drama is meant to do – it exploits conflict to extract great imagined conversations based on real events. What if an adult JQA and his mother talked frankly about her overbearing parenting? What if John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson spoke in The White House on the eve of Jackson’s inauguration? (The real answer probably would have been Jackson caning Adams since he held him responsible for his wife Rachel’s recent death, but that wouldn’t have allowed for the philosophical discussion about the nature of government that Posner wanted to portray.)
The choice to have actors switch off playing JQA was intriguing, but a bit uneven as some actors excelled in certain roles much more than others. Eric Hissom as Henry Clay was the star of the show for me – he charismatically delivered lines that were obviously some of the most fun to write. I could have watched 90 minutes of Henry Clay trying to get John Quincy Adams to compromise on anything.
Phyllis Kay’s portrayal of George Washington as a wise and jolly Santa Claus figure was jarring at first, but I ended up digging the rhythm of the scene’s comedic mentorship. Kay really shined in her portrayal of Abigail Adams though, and I was having major transference issues as I couldn’t help but see my Aunt Eloise on the stage – a firm, devout woman whose strength and world view are unshakable.
Joshua David Robinson had strong performances as John Quincy Adams and as Frederick Douglas, but the Douglas scene itself was underwhelming – Douglas lectured Adams on why slavery was wrong and Adams nodded a lot. The benefit of creating imagined conversations is that you can do original things with them and take new unexplored routes through the same moral questions, and this scene felt like safe, familiar ground.
JQA is hardly controversial, but it is certainly political in a way that’s almost impossible to avoid now. I run into this anytime I write a Facebook post on the Plodding page tying presidential leadership with integrity, honor, loyalty, virtue, honesty, or intellectual curiosity and I find myself accused of attacking the forty-fifth president. Sure, sometimes it’s intended to be a dig (I can’t help that I prefer presidents who read books) but not always. If I quote John Adams’s “Facts are stubborn things,” on any given day, it seems like I’m throwing timely shade on an administration that prefers “alternative facts.”
Posner not-so-subtly emphasizes John Quincy Adams’s progressive vision for the country, his struggle to do the right thing, his experience, and his intelligence to showcase the lack of such qualities and vision in the White House now. Sometimes it’s heavy-handed, like when Jackson is shoehorned into representing a more eloquent version of Trump, but it works to accentuate how relatable and relevant Adams’s battles are to the present.
The best thing I can say about this play is something I heard in the lobby afterward. One woman enthusiastically told her friend, “Now I want to go home and read all about him.” Anything that raises interest in John Quincy Adams is a success in my book.
I truly enjoyed JQA, and I commend the Arena Stage and its sponsors for championing historical productions like this one. This may not be the be-all, end-all play about Adams, but it was entertaining, well-staged, and did a service to the memory of a virtually forgotten giant of American history. Though I found that the disparate two-person conversations limited the play’s dramatic arcs, I believe Posner used the structure well to dive into several facets of Adams’s life and emphasize how we used to have leaders who strived to do good and be good.
It’s a lesson I want to impart to my son, because he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for intelligent and caring people who choose to do good every day.