There are times when theater can be a therapeutic escape from the day’s troubles and challenges. But Sacramento’s theater companies have been extraordinarily topical as of late, producing dramas that serve as an echo chamber to reflect rather than deflect contemporary concerns.
Consider Sacramento Theatre Company’s fall production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the World War II tale of white nationalism and supremacy that resonates with today’s political and cultural turmoil. Then there is Capital Stage’s current production of “Luna Gale” and its story of drug addiction, religious extremism and sexual abuse – topics that serve up much of the daily fare for news outlets.
Now comes another on-point production, STC’s “Kings of America,” an inventive world premiere written by native Sacramentan Sean Patrick Nill, about our nation’s proclivity for forcing our presidents to wear only one hat – white or black – painting them as either good or evil.
Even as a polarizing Donald Trump occupies the White House, Nill’s story makes the case that each of our “Kings of America” deserves a more nuanced judgment and legacy. “They are men,” Nill says in program notes, “bequeathed with an impossible job and plagued with human vices and prejudice.”
Nill’s script sets up a construct that is tantalizing in concept, one that is brought to successful fruition by director Lyndsay Burch and an ensemble of actors. The drama opens on the night of Barack Obama’s election victory on Nov. 4, 2008 and ends with his inauguration months later, on Jan. 20, 2009. Throughout that span, the audience is introduced to 12 American presidents – from George Washington to George W. Bush – who appear as well-matched pairs in the dreams of a troubled teen named Noah.
Under Burch’s direction, the actors’ energy fills the compact set and, at times, spills into the audience of the more intimate black-box style Pollock Stage. Singular red, white and blue chairs are the compass points of the simple set.
Three talented actors – John Lam, Will Springhorn Jr. and Jordan Stidham – perform multiple roles and split up the 12 presidents among them. The actors’ ability to embody their respective presidents is impressive.
J’cyn Crawley, a member of Sacramento Theatre’s Young Professionals Conservatory, is compelling as Noah, the anguished African American student and “history nerd” who is struggling with the anger and grief of a teen whose father left him at a young age. (Crawley is sharing the role with Jacquez Cosby, another member of the conservatory).
Noah has been a top student but is suddenly unable to sleep at night, losing interest in all his classes – even his favorite, U.S. History. He begins acting out with his mother and teachers. Noah’s school sends him to a therapist after he is caught sleeping in class. After mouthing off to the therapist, too, Noah begins opening up and describing some of his dreams, which involve different U.S. presidents.
Noah senses a connection between his nighttime reveries and his longing for his father, though his father never appears in his dreams. It takes conversations with a dozen presidents for Noah to figure it all out.
The audience first meets the Roosevelt cousins – Presidents Theodore (Lamb) and Franklin (Springhorn) – and the actors are hilarious and delightful in their respective roles, talking over each other, mocking each other and ribbing Noah. Franklin scoots around the stage in his wheelchair, swilling martinis while Theodore complains that he’s always hated the nickname Teddy: “Do I look plush, huh?!” he asks. They beg Noah to tell them which of the two Roosevelts was the better president.
Later, Presidents Jimmy Carter (Springhorn) and John F. Kennedy (Stidham) take the stage after Noah falls asleep in a movie theater. When Carter chides Kennedy for being a poor influence, Noah shoots back: “He did it with Marilyn Monroe! He’s the best influence!”
Noah defends Carter, too, praising him for his post-presidential work helping to feed and build homes for the poor. But Kennedy slams Carter, arguing that his energy policies “made voters sit at a gas station for five hours every Tuesday! … You’re nice, and boring and forgettable.”
The action and dialogue of the dreams seesaws between comedy and drama throughout: President Bill Clinton (Stidham) dons sunglasses and plays the saxophone; President Washington (Springhorn) expresses self-righteous indignation; President Thomas Jefferson (Stidham), the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, grades Noah’s papers and gives them all Fs; and President Andrew Jackson (Lamb) flashes his braggadocio, telling Noah, “We are the best type of king. We are kings of democracy. … The people choose us to rule.”
Jackson also chides Noah for refusing to confront his mother with questions about his father. Instead, he tells him he is acting like a “little boy dreaming his problems away.”
The climax occurs, and Noah’s healing begins, when he confronts Presidents Richard Nixon (Springhorn) and George W. Bush (Lamb), the latter of which we realize directly affected the fate of Noah’s father.
Some viewers may ultimately find this play too facile in its messaging, but many will be moved by its directness, especially when acknowledging the human limitations of leaders and the outsized roles they can play in domestic and geopolitical issues.
Sacramento Theatre’s decision to present “Kings of America” in its smaller Pollock Stage clearly enhances the impact and emotional energy that this play generates. But there is a price to pay. If this production has a flaw it is that the choice of the smaller, 85-seat theater will limit how many will be able to see this satisfying production.
Kings of America
What: The world premiere production of Sacramento actor and playwright Sean Patrick Nill’s play about a struggling teenage boy and his recurring dreams populated by former U.S. presidents. Directed by Lyndsay Burch.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m., Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 10.
Cost: $20-$38, discounts available for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-443-6722 or www.sactheatre.org
Running time: About one hour and 35 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission