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 Monday, Sept. 22, the 265th day of 2014. There are 100 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The board of education has granted Thursday as a holiday for the children, with the expectation that parents who desire to have their children attend the Scott County Fair will do so on that day and save irregularity the rest of the week.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The guard fence around the new cement walk at the Harper House has been removed. The blocks are diamond shape, alternating in black and white.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Rev. R.B. Williams, former pastor of the First Methodist Church, Rock Island, was named superintendent of the Rock Island District.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Abnormally high temperatures and lack of rainfall in Illinois during the past week have speeded maturing of corn and soybean crops.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Installation of a new television system in St. Anthony's Hospital, which includes a closed circuit channel as well as the three regular Quad-Cities channels, has been completed and now is in operation.
1989 -- 25 years ago: When the new Moline High School was built in 1958, along with it were plans to construct a football field in the bowl near 34th Street on the campus. Wednesday afternoon, more than 30 years later, the Moline Board of Education Athletic Board sent the ball rolling toward the possible construction of that field by asking superintendent Richard Hennigan to take to the board of education a proposal to hire a consultant.

(More History)