Five years ago, NextStop Theatre Company presented “45 Plays for 45 Presidents,” (read our review here), a collection of super-short plays about each of the men who had served in the nation’s highest office, portrayed by an all-female cast. Now the women, who put their own dreams and ambitions aside to boost these men, get their own turn in the spotlight in “46 Plays for America’s First Ladies,” directed by Megan Behm.
…breeze[s] by with charm and vivacity…a delightful history lesson…
Once again, the cast is entirely female, and much more diverse than the White House residence has so far been. And once again, the plays run a wide range from slapstick to maudlin, musical to poetic, and verbose to wordless.
The role of First Lady is a strange one, as these vignettes make clear. The spouse of the president is inherently a political figure, and some have gathered their own followings. Witness the frequent pleas for Michelle Obama—an undeniably brilliant person, but one who has never served in nor aspired to public office, and who by her own admission loathes politics—to run for president herself, even though she has repeatedly said she has no desire to do so.
In some ways, “46 Plays” is a greater actor’s challenge than its predecessor. While most who would attend such shows probably know at least a bit about the bulk of America’s past chief executives, it is less likely that even an American History major knows much about, say, Abigail Powers Fillmore, the intellectual wife of the hapless 13th president—or any of the four women who served the role of First Lady during just the four years of John Tyler’s presidential tenure.
“46 Plays” strives to introduce these women; share how each were elevated or subsumed by a public life each may or may not have desired; and do so in an entertaining way. It rarely resorts to caricature, and generally succeeds in not being reductive. The piece on Lucy Hayes blasts historians who have remembered her only for hosting alcohol-free White House events while ignoring her many achievements. Some of the other plays reduce their subjects to just one character point—unfortunately unavoidable in covering so many women in so little time.
This production requires exceptional range and energy from its five actors, and all acquit themselves admirably. Brittany Martz (the only one who also appeared in “45 Plays”) is the core of the proceedings and equally adept at singing a blues number as showy Julia Grant; performing an alt-comedy stand-up set as deeply depressed Jane Pierce; and glowering in the background as John F. Kennedy. (The presidents themselves appear only sparingly and, in a clever touch, rarely get a line and are sometimes sent off by the women before they can once again seize the spotlight.)
Sydney Johnson does much of the show’s emotional heavy lifting, most impressively in the Michelle Obama scene which demands its actor to both be her true self and put on a public performance—an impossibility. Emily Sucher plays most of the younger First Ladies and shines in narrating the story of Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan, and keystone of what Sucher calls America’s first and so far only “queer First Family.”
The 46 plays are presented on a simple but elegant set by Megan Holden that evokes a room in the White House or the Smithsonian Hall that houses each woman’s inaugural gowns. Simple costume changes allow for smooth transitions—a basic scarf signifies who the First Lady is in each scene, leading to occasional tugs-of-war between dueling aspirants. Simple props, many comedic in themselves, are stored around the set for easy access.
One of the best elements of the show are the projections by Taylor Verrett. While “45 Plays” pictured each president in an oval frame that evoked U.S. currency, using a formal portrait of each, the 46 scenes here each get a title card with different fonts and images to set the mood. (Each slide notes the dates of the presidential term of office being displayed; there were a few small errors that can hopefully be corrected.)
“46 Plays for America’s First Ladies” is a long show, but it doesn’t feel like it—its component pieces breeze by with charm and vivacity. The creativity of each scene had me eager to find out what the next would look like, and the prospect of seeing the treatment of the First Ladies we know from our own era at the end of the show held attention. “46 Plays” is a delightful history lesson and admonition to, as the second play of the set tells us, “remember the ladies.”
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.
“46 Plays for America’s First Ladies” runs through February 19, 2023 at NextStop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA 21070. For more information and tickets, go online. Masks are required while in the performance space.