William Penn Adair Rogers, known to millions of Americans as Will said, "When I die I want my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, to read: I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like. I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved." Unfortunately, he got his wish on August 15, 1935 when the Alaskan bound plane he was flying in with aviator Wiley Post crashed.
Rogers, who is the subject of the one-man show, Will Rogers' U.S.A., which is now on stage at Actors' Summit Theatre, was probably Oklahoma's favorite son. What many don't know is, this adored story teller, actor, writer and world-famous figure was born to a prominent Cherokee National family in the Indian Territory.
A leading Progressive Era wit, after many years in vaudeville, doing rope tricks anD Making humorous comments, he became the top-paid Hollywood star during the 30s. He poked fun at gangsters, politicians, parents, teenagers, law schools, colleges, political conventions, Republicans, economists, and government programs in a way that didn't offend. (Wow, could we use his sage comments during the present vile political race.)
He is widely known for his, "I am not a member of an organized political party, I am a Democrat." He marked among his friends, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Some of his other sage comments included: "An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what he has just found out, " "Don't gamble, take all your savings, buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don't go up, don't buy it," "Politics is the best show in the world," "War is the only game that everyone loses. Why do we keep playing?" and "I have always noticed that people will never laugh at anything that is not based on the truth."
These, and many other of Roger's truthisms, are now being spoken by Neil Thackaberry, who is portraying the revered icon at Actors' Summit.
It's a difficult task to do a one-man show. It is even more difficult when people have a visual image and know the vocal sounds of the person being portrayed. Doing Rogers is further problematic as he was a quiet comedian, a story teller who didn't raise his voice, didn't swear, told cute tales not hysterical jokes. To make a play about his life that will hold attention his material needs to be incorporated into a song-filled, dance infused, and humorous script like the delightful Will Rogers FOLLIES, rather than to a 90-minute monologue.
Given the challenge, Thackaberry, who bears little physical resemblance to the lanky Rogers, and doesn't possess the political philosopher's natural audience connection, does a nice job. Thackaberry sends forth the many, many lines with ease, getting smiles from the audience, and creating a nice atmosphere. He even delights the audience with a couple of rope tricks. Two segments highlights were his discussion of corsets and Calvin Coolidge.
The set is a blank stage with a desk and chair way upstage. Why the decision was made to put the desk so far away from the audience is a mystery. Each time Thackaberry wandered to it, he broke his connection to the audience. That connection is the heart of the show.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Will Rogers was a great American humorist and philosopher. His understated humor is sage wisdom, but does not make for compelling theatre, in spite of a nice presentation by Neil Thackaberry at Actors' Summit.
This Actor's Summit production is dedicated to the memory of Ira Sherman, Board member, Set Builder, and Friend!
For tickets to Will Rogers' U.S.A., which runs through October 28, call 330-342-0800 or go to actorssummit.org.