Chicago Theatre Review
Behind-the-Scenes of History
Blind Date – Goodman Theatre
In the early 1980’s, during his second term of office, President Ronald Reagan observed the change in the Soviet Union’s leadership. Mikhail Gorbachev was now the new General Secretary. Reagan dreamed of a world free of nuclear
weapons and he was finally able to meet with and begin a series of diplomatic discussions regarding their countries’ nuclear disarmament. There were four summit meetings altogether, with this, the initial conference, beginning in Geneva, Switzerland. There the President introduced the idea of a Strategic Defense Initiative that would use ground- and space-based systems to protect against nuclear missile attacks. Reagan also believed that by sharing this idea, he could convince the Soviet leader to also permit free speech and a more democratic way of life for his people. In doing so, he felt it might lead to reform and the end of Communism.
In Rogelio Martinez’s new, original drama, we get a partially imagined, behind-the-scenes look at this important historical event. Drawing back the curtain, audiences get a glimpse of the real people behind the facade, rather than the political pioneers found in the pages of history books. Martinez delivers an often humorous depiction of some of the greatest world leaders of that era. Under Robert Falls’ witty and wise direction, a truly gifted cast of Chicago actors bring detail and honesty to their portrayal of these characters. Their chemistry and dynamics exist in the pre-social media days of our two countries, giving this eye-opening story a truthful look beneath the veil of the political privacy. The result is stunning and filled with both dramatic and comic moments of honesty.
There are several couples involved in this “blind date.” Of course, there’s Ronald Reagan, gently portrayed by Rob Riley. Without becoming a caricature, Riley evokes the homely humor of the man, along with the measured cadence of Reagan’s speech that audiences will recognize. William Dick is superb as Mikhail Gorbachev, sporting the man’s identifiable pink birthmark on his forehead, delivers his dialogue with just the right amount of gruffness and a perfect Russian accent (thanks to the work of master Chicago dialect coach, Eva Breneman).
Then there are the ladies. Mary Beth Fisher, a familiar face to Goodman audiences, is stunning as Raisa Gorbachev. With her raised eyebrow, her rigid posture and constant tone of disdain for those around her, Ms. Fisher truly captures the dry humor and arrogance of the General Secretary’s wife. Jeff and Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan is one of those actresses who can easily morph into whatever character she’s playing. Here she’s simply magnificent as Nancy Reagan. Without trying to impersonate the former First Lady, Ms. Dunagan brings just enough of Mrs. Reagan’s steel, determination and wide-eyed whimsy to her characterization. Together, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Dunagan practically steal the show, particularly in their tea party scene, which feels like an homage to another similar moment from “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
The third odd couple sharing this “blind date” are the talented, understated Jim Ortlieb, absolutely wonderful here as Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz; and the always impressive Steve Pickering, as Gorbachev’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Eduard Shevardnadze, a doting grandfather, yet always very Russian. Together, these two gentlemen meet and develop a friendship over shrimp cocktails and mixed drinks. Their droll banter, proper detente and occasional levity create two realistic, candid characters who become the fulcrum that supports and adds leverage to the meeting of these two world leaders.
Other excellent performances in this production come from Michael Milligan, as folksy Press Secretary, Larry Speakes; Thomas J. Cox deftly portraying Reagan’s British-born biographer, Edmund Morris; and Torrey Hanson as Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger.
Riccardo Hernandez offers a scenic design that’s dominated by a massive, soft gray, vertical cylinder that reminds audiences of a missile silo. This structure is on a turntable, allowing it to revolve and reveal new scenes, each simply delineated by a sparse selection of furnishings and drops. The set is surrounded by another turntable that includes an elevator, allowing people and props to quickly appear and vanish from beneath the stage. The choreography of Mr. Hernandez’s scenic design, and all its adornments, is impressive, yet frugal. Amy Clark has perfectly captured each character with her stylish, 1980’s period costumes, while Richard Woodbury adds one more layer of mood and authenticity with his original music and sound design.
Rogelio Martinez’s new play that’s set during the Cold War years is a surprising treat. Audiences who lived through those years will enjoy this behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of these historical figures. Those who’ve only read about the Reagans and the Gorbachevs in their history books will have a chance at seeing an important historical moment come to life before their eyes. Under Robert Falls’ gentle direction, the honesty and comedy of this page in history is as entertaining as it is informative, and certainly worth a visit.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 20-February 25 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/BlindDate.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.