Broadway veteran Ray Wills made a triumphant return to his hometown Wednesday night with his one-man “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” portrait of President Harry S. Truman to kick off the second season for The Forum Theatre.
It was his first local performance in about 15 years, and Wills (known for his wildly successful 2 1/2-year Broadway run with “The Producers”) delivered a crisp, feisty and witty performance that was very alive and revealing about our World War II-era president. Directed with an emphasis on subtlety and understatement by Tom Frye, Wills voiced a hint of Truman’s famous pinched Missouri twang to lend aural authenticity, but not so much as to become a hickish caricature.
Wills captured the spunk and spirit of a man famed for cutting through political bureaucracy to get to the unvarnished truth of matters. He was a president who had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that tellingly read “The Buck Stops Here.”
Truman was famous for his plain-spoken zingers, and Wills makes them sharper and funnier by tossing them off as matter-of-fact conversation rather than showcasing them like a stand-up. His is a sophisticated and accomplished portrayal that’s both highly entertaining and cleverly instructive.
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The play, adapted from Truman’s own writings and speeches by Samuel Gallu, was written in the 1970s about the 1940s, but it seems astonishingly current rather than just a period piece — especially coming so close to next month’s presidential election.
Truman voiced concerns about many of the same issues that are hot-button topics today, from greedy bankers to politicians who act as if truth were merely an option in running the country, to military leaders who want to wage wars for job security.
In the two-act play, Truman comments on everyone from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired) to anti-communist rabble-rouser Sen. Joe McCarthy (whom he didn’t) to arrogant Gen. Douglas MacArthur (whom he fired).
Truman also talks about weighty issues, from being thrust into the presidency with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and suffering under the sting of being referred to as “His Accidency,” to threatening to nationalize the railroads for national security to prevent a strike, to making the decision to drop atomic bombs.
But we also see the very human side of Truman as a man, a husband and a father with all his flaws, foibles and quirks. He was a small-town haberdasher who rose to the highest office in the land and put an indelible stamp on history. But Truman never lost sight of the fact that he was just a fallible, mortal person underneath all the power, position and prestige.
That’s the strength of this play and the key to Wills’ engaging, memorable and inspiring turn.
The glorious set by Tyler Lessin uses a sleek but sumptuous evocation of the Oval Office with blue carpet and blue velvet drapes as the centerpiece. Beyond it on both sides are vignettes for Truman’s speechifying and a quiet back porch in Independence, Mo., where he retreated from pressures of D.C. life. Prop master Aaron Profit dressed the set with wonderful period pieces and details.
Even the entire auditorium was dressed in campaign bunting and flags to colorfully set the mood beyond the stage. Because Truman walks through the audience at a key moment, as he did on his famous hometown morning walks, it became an immersive, immediate experience. Bravo.