Curtains: Algonquin Presents New Play Kennedy in Peoria

Ron Hunting as President John F. Kennedy. There really are scenes with other people in them, I promise.
Ron Hunting as President John F. Kennedy. There really are scenes with other people in them, I promise.
courtesy of Theater Works

Have you ever been shopping and seen a cunningly-styled, uniquely flattering, bargain-priced evening coat and been a little bummed because it's such a lovely, accessible object of obvious quality, but who really needs an evening coat, like, ever? This is the predicament of Kennedy, a rather enjoyable and beautifully presented new play that just doesn't really fit anywhere.

Ron Hunting (who also directed and stars in the current Algonquin Theater Company production) has been working on this script for some time, and except for the first act being about one or two scenes too long (which makes it difficult to work up interest about the Cuban Missile Crisis cliffhanger at the end of Act I) it's a well-structured, nicely paced look at the tragically short life and career of the 35th U.S. president.

The action transitions seamlessly from Oval Office meetings to passages in which JFK addresses the audience as he might a visiting journalist, then back to press conferences, hearings, more meetings, famous speeches -- yes, it's wordy, but most of this part of U.S. history is dynamic and fascinating, and so were its high-profile participants. And I believe that's the case whether you're old enough to literally remember the early 1960s or young enough to be hearing some of this information for the first time (or my in-between generation, whose '60s and '70s textbooks happened to conclude after WWII).

But the script as it stands is probably too long and talky to make it practical for presentation during the school day (except perhaps for some kind of honor student assembly or field trip), and, demographically, it's hitting us grownups a decade too early, perhaps -- especially considering the current core audience at Peoria's Theater Works, Algonquin's parent and host company, who trend old enough to have very clear memories of the plot's events.

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Nevertheless, I was very pleased with Hunting's performance (not forced mimicry, but surprisingly evocative) and his thoughtful, understated set design, which takes advantage of the raked house of the Mary Jane Gyder mainstage theater by placing most of the elegant detail on the floor, whose platforms and walkways appear to be made of dark marble and fine woodwork (that's stage magic, of course -- most such illusions are crap + paint + talent). Two cream-colored furniture pieces, JFK's iconic rocking chair and a small sofa, plus a small rug in the Presidential seal design, turn the center area into the Oval Office, and other spaces, including, at times, the aisles, shift as needed.

Athena Hunting's costumes are a perfect match for the scenic concept. Kennedy looks like himself, and the rest of the ensemble (save one surprise visitor) are clad entirely in crisp, timeless black outfits. These actors morph from character to character entirely with the craft of their personal instruments -- voice and body -- and they are all equally excellent.

Kennedy continues through Sunday, February 28, at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets are $15 to $25; buy them here or call 623-815-7930. The theater will host an informal talkback after Saturday's and Sunday's performances, and I must credit the session I attended for a great deal of provocative assistance in writing this review.


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