Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground: Show Review by Amy Wall Lerman

At the start of Richard Hellesen’s off-Broadway one-man show playing now at the “Theatre at St. Clement’s” in New York City, Former President, and Retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower is angry.  In “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground,” the former Chief Executive, played by Tony Award Winning Actor, John Rubenstein, storms onto the set, furiously waving around the “New York Times Magazine” section.  The year is 1962 and Eisenhower is furious that he’s placed #22 out of 35 on the best president’s list.  To make matters worse, the categories for past presidents are “Great,” “Near Great,” “Average,” and “Failure.”  According to the 75 American historians who compiled the list that year, Eisenhower was a failure.

I must admit, I have never thought much of Eisenhower’s presidency at all.  He was president before I was born and he didn’t make much of an impression on me in my history classes. I knew of his involvement in World War 2 and the Korean War, but little else.  It just seemed to me like he was jumping on the bandwagon of fame after that…needing to stay in the American spotlight, this time as president.  This play, directed by Peter Ellenstein, is based on Eisenhower’s letters and writings, and if accurate, proves my unresearched assessment of the man, wrong.

If this play does anything, it dispels an image of this president as a conservative Republican who governed more like a General and less like a civilian who understands the trials of average American citizens.  Eisenhower speaks to the audience as he records his life story in his living room telling us about his Jehovah’s Witness mother, his adored yet emotionally distant father, his five brothers and life as a child in Abilene, Kansas that taught him about integrity and strong-work ethic.  More surprisingly for me, we hear about his passion for the country and the well-being of its people, the importance of being a leader of democracy and an enemy of tyranny and fascism.  We hear about his love of books as the mainstay of freedom of speech no matter what we think of the content.  And most importantly for today’s audience in terms of perspective-taking, he tells us that maintaining our democracy takes work.  It is fragile and must be protected by adhering to our strong desire to be free.  Freedom, he says, cannot exist without truth.

Perhaps the most moving part of the show is when he speaks of the death of his firstborn son, “Icky” blaming himself for his death because he hired a maid who had just gotten over Scarlet Fever.  Thinking she was healthy, he hired her.  Within weeks, his son succumbed to the disease.   Like with D-Day, he says, sometimes you make a decision and the worst thing happens.

The list of best American presidents changed over the years.  By 2022 Eisenhower was listed #5 on the best president’s list. Time and perspective breed new thinking, especially as we struggle with the fragility of democracy in our own time.  But Eisenhower had that in his time too which included a madman Senator named Joseph McCarthy who attempted to pull democracy apart with lies, book burnings and fearmongering.  Race riots, segregation; and radical conservatism post-World War 2 with efforts toward isolationism and “America First” were prevalent then and this show is a reminder that we must learn from history and remember that freedom is fragile. While Eisenhower, like all humans and all presidents, had his flaws, what I saw on stage, was a real patriot.

Visit https://www.eisenhowertheplay.com/