Smile Politely

Spend an evening with the First Ladies

In just a little over a month, Americans will flock to the voting booth to cast their vote for who they want to be the 45th President of the United States. This particular election has been one of the most interesting and hotly debated elections in quite some time. One of the candidates, Hillary Clinton, has a shot at becoming the first ever female president in the history of United States. There couldn’t be a better time for Parkland Theatre to put on a production of First Lady Suite than now and director Steven Fiol hopes that this particular production gets people think about the possible reality of a female president. 

First Lady Suite is what is known as a chamber musical — essentially, a play that has music performed by a small number of instruments. This particular chamber musical is broken up into four parts and each part focuses on a different First Lady of the United States as well as the people around them. The first segment focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy and her secretary who is feeling overworked and underpaid and discusses this with John F. Kennedy’s secretary. The second segment focuses on Mamie Eisenhower and her experience of feeling abandoned by her husband on her birthday. The third segment depicts Margaret Truman attempting to sing at a recital. Finally, the fourth segment features Eleanor Roosevelt and the action takes place on a flight piloted by Amelia Earhart.

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Fiol about this particular production and what he hopes audiences will get out of the show when they go see it.

Smile Politely: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

Fiol: I had the privilege of being raised in India as the youngest of four sons of Presbyterian missionaries, and I became a resident of the United States at 18 in 1963 when I began my university studies in Kansas.  I enjoyed two years of military service at the invitation of the US Army 1967-69.  Later I lived for two years in Paraguay, South America, completed a second undergraduate degree, attended graduate school and was employed as Director of Opera at Millikin University in 1976.  I have been a member of Actors Equity and performed and directed extensively in the Midwest.  I retired from Millikin in 2010 following a series of faculty and administrative positions and returned to my first love as a freelance stage director of musical theatre and opera.

SP: Why did you decide to direct this particular production? What about this play inspired you to be a part of it?

Fiol: This work opened at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1993 and later moved to Off Broadway.  It was referred to by the New York Times as a “post Sondheim” work.  It is a deemed, by the composer, Michael John LaChiusa, as a Chamber Musical and is often reminiscent of a Stephen Sondheim’s compositions.  The music is complex for the cast and pianist and that interested me.  In addition each of the four “scenes” or vignettes have five or fewer characters and that attracts me.  The fact that it deals with American history also attracts me.  But most especially I was drawn by the enthusiasm of the Parkland Theatre faculty: Joi Hoffsommer and Brian Morgan. Knowing that their commitment to the work —by Joi as producer and Brian as set and sound designer— would ensure the needed support and vision to bring this complex work to a successful conclusion.

SP: What are some of the themes of the show and why do you think those themes may be important to an audience?

Fiol: The work explores the complexity and difficulty of the role of First Lady of the United States.  The Opening of First Lady Suite presents ten First Ladies singing of their position both personally and as national figures and wishing ultimately for “flight”. 

First Lady Grace Coolidge perhaps described the First ladies dilemma best when she wrote:

“When I reflect upon my Washington career, I wonder how I ever faced it…  There was a sense of detachment.  This was I, and not I – this was the wife of the President and she took precedence over me; my personal likes and dislikes must be subordinated to the consideration of those things which were required of her.”

Most of us, and especially women in the US and global societies, know what it is to be held to expectations and responsibilities without authority or the necessary means to fully accomplish those expectations.  For the First Lady this was surely a daily reality.

SP: What can people expect from this play if they wish to attend?

Fiol: People will initially enter a lobby designed as a museum display dedicated to the historical topics relevant to the 20th Century, US Presidents, the First Ladies, and the topics addressed in First Lady Suite.  The set is designed to represent a First Lady Smithsonian Museum display.  One can expect to engage some of the issues relevant to the role of First Lady seen in four vignettes through events and the personalities of First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, and Eleanor Roosevelt.  While the scenes are fictional the historical context is consistently accurate. 

The work is largely through-composed with most dialogue spoken over accompaniment, approximately one and a half hour in length and performed without an intermission.

SP: When the audience leaves the theatre after seeing the play, what do you hope they are thinking about? What kind of experience do you hope an audience will have with this play?

Fiol: It is my hope that attendees will think about the historical arc of the role of first ladies and women generally within the United States; to contemplate the profound reality of not only an African-American First Lady, but of the potential of a woman as President.

It really seems like there is really no better time to go out and see this particular production. If you are interested in attending a performance, you can see the show at the Parkland Theatre’s Second Stage starting this Thursday October 6 and the show runs through the October 23rd. On the 6th, 7th, 8th, 14th, 15th, 21st, and 22nd of October, the show is at 7:30 p.m. while on the 16th and 23rd, the show is at 3:00 p.m. The tickets are $15 for an adult, $13 for a Senior, $9 for a Youth, and $11 for a group of 15 or more. Reservations are strongly encouraged as seating is limited. You can reserve your tickets by email, calling directly at 351-2528, or visiting Parkland Theatre’s website.

Jordan Kreie is a recent college graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in English. When he isn’t writing articles for the Arts section of Smile Politely, he is watching movies and writing film criticism. You can find him on twitter @jordankreie or read more of his work on his blog

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