There's something about 'Harry'
Straight-talking Truman charms, inspires in one-man show
Being in the audience of Palo Alto Players' production of "Give 'em Hell, Harry" is akin to spending the evening with a kindly uncle as he reminisces about his eventful life, sharing rambling anecdotes sprinkled with wisdom and humor. That is, of course, if said uncle was also the leader of the free world.
In the case of this one-man play written by Samuel Gallu, the jovial, avuncular narrator is no run-of-the-mill Midwestern gramps. He's former U.S. President Harry S. Truman, and mixed amongst his shrewd commentary and mother-in-law jokes are tales of giving the OK to drop the atom bomb(s) on Japan, run-ins with the KKK, leading the nation through the shadowy Korean War, defending the little guy from Wall Street greed and much more. It's the story of a self-proclaimed average Joe from the heartland who came to represent the best of America.
Truman grew up a farm boy in Missouri and worked a variety of clerical jobs before serving as a U.S. Army officer in World War I. After returning from France and marrying his childhood sweetheart, the formidable future First Lady Bess Wallace (affectionately referred to as "Boss"), he had a brief career as a haberdasher before going into politics as a staunch Democrat, rising to the U.S. Senate. To his surprise, he was selected to be Franklin D. Roosevelt's third vice president in 1944. Only a few months into 1945, Roosevelt died, leaving Truman to ascend as World War II was drawing to a close. Surprising political pundits once again in 1948, he defeated Republican Tom Dewey to earn a second term in office.
Truman, at least as portrayed in this play, is the opposite of what comes to mind when most people these days hear the word "politician": straightforward, honest to a fault, plainspoken and humble. He's a man who loathes phoniness, corruption and inequality; a man who fights for the liberty of regular folk and for the preservation of common sense, bipartisanship and pragmatism.
Though "Give 'em Hell, Harry" first premiered in 1975, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the content resonates just as strongly today. Concerns about big banks and Wall Street screwing over the working and middle classes are proven not to be new concerns, as Truman rails against such corruption in the 1930s.
The idealized Harry of Gallu's play is someone to root for, and learn from. Throughout the course of the play he recounts his battles with racists, snobs, McCarthy and others — several times drawing enthusiastic cheers from the Lucie Stern Theatre crowd at a recent performance.
Palo Alto real-estate developer and veteran actor Peter Vilkin plays the 33rd president with the voice and every-man demeanor of Jimmy Stewart, but full of confidence (never swagger) and a penchant for salty swear words. His Truman is friendly, warm and unabashedly dedicated to serving his state, then his nation, to the best of his abilities without suffering delusions of grandeur or losing touch with his roots.
Vilkin leads audience members on an autobiographical tour of Truman's life, punctuated by wonderful excerpts from his crackling speeches and letters. In one piece of correspondence, the president colorfully attacks a newspaper reporter who gave a poor review to his beloved daughter Margaret Truman's musical concert, stating: "Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"
In other, more serious vignettes, Vilkin reenacts Truman's stirring speeches from the Senate floor and one from his famous "Whistlestop" campaign tour across the country by train.
The timeline drifts in and out of chronology, which is true to the stream-of-conciousness style and tone of the show. Sometimes Truman flashes back to his early years; sometimes he flashes forward to after his time as president. It's a hodgepodge of a character study that generally works very well. Though Vilkin is the only actor, and often speaks directly to the audience, other figures play invisible roles (such as ex-President Herbert Hoover), as Vilkin engages them in one-sided conversations. It is much to his credit that Vilkin is able to keep audiences interested for what must be a vocally taxing hour and 45 minutes of gabbing.
Due to the simple nature of the show, the staging and costume needs are not elaborate, but props are used throughout to good effect to visually underscore the scenes Vilkin flashes back upon.
Whether or not the real Harry Truman was as likable and wholeheartedly decent as portrayed on stage (Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding), the Truman character in the play proves a true American treasure.
Vilkin was rewarded with a standing ovation at the end of the performance I attended, and I got the feeling the hearty applause was meant not only in praise of Vilkin's excellent performance but also in honor of the one-of-a-kind president he so joyfully brings to life.
What: "Give 'em Hell, Harry," a Samuel Gallu play presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Remaining performances are this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30.
Cost: Tickets are $29, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups of 12 or more.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.