Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 20, 2012

The Truman show

Palo Altan portrays plain-spoken president

by Rebecca Wallace

Right about now, Marilyn Langbehn usually digs out the Truman campaign button she inherited from her grandmother. In an election year, she figures, the nation can use a dose of the late president's plainspokenness.

"Harry Truman keeps coming up at certain times in our lives, because we so desperately just want someone to sit us down and tell us the truth," she says in a phone interview. "He didn't shy away from his opinions. He was very principled. You felt, I think, as if you knew where you stood."

Thanks to the one-man play "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," Truman keeps surfacing on stage. Playwright Samuel Gallu wrote the script after the Watergate scandal, and it went to Broadway and film in 1975, with James Whitmore playing Truman.

"There are some obvious digs to Nixon" in the script, Langbehn says. "They're pretty much guaranteed to get some kind of 'things never change' reaction from the audience."

Now, in another era when the public is repeatedly shocked, shocked to hear that a politician has lied, "Give 'Em Hell, Harry" will be back on stage locally, courtesy of Palo Alto Players.

A desk with the famous "The buck stops here" sign will soon preside over the Lucie Stern Theatre stage. The minimal set will recall the Oval Office that Truman occupied from 1945 to 1953, during the end of World War II, the dropping of the bomb, Truman's nail-biting election victory in 1948, the Korean War and the nascent civil-rights movement.

Later in the play, Truman spends time back home in Missouri, recalling the pivotal conversations and people of his past, including the general and war hero Douglas MacArthur, whom Truman fired for insubordination.

Overall, the episodic play is more of a personal profile than a study of history.

"The playwright has chosen some very select pieces (of the president's life) to paint Truman as the champion of the little guy, the average American," Langbehn says. "If you're going into the script looking for some big dissection of his role in the bombing of Hiroshima or the desegregation of the military, they're not in there."

What is part of this production is a seasoned team. Langbehn is in her 25th year as a director. By day, she's the marketing and PR manager of the California Shakespeare Theater in Berkeley. She's directed three other shows for Palo Alto Players, including the acclaimed "Rabbit Hole" in 2010. Interestingly, she just helmed an East Bay production of "Frost/Nixon."

Playing Truman — holding the stage alone while embodying a historical figure, all in a Missouri accent — is no small task. In the role is a veteran actor, longtime Palo Alto resident Peter Vilkin.

Vilkin has been busy with his career as a real-estate developer and hasn't been on stage in 13 years. As Truman might have said, this is a hell of a role to return with. But Palo Alto Players executive director Peter Bliznick had enough faith in Vilkin to pre-cast him.

"They'd have to find someone crazy enough to memorize an hour and 45 minutes of dialogue," Vilkin says recently at the theater, laughing. "If you add up all the roles I've ever played, this is more than that."

Add up those roles, and you get a swell acting resume. Vilkin balanced work and theater after graduating from Stanford University in 1980, acting with Palo Alto Players in such shows as "The Three Sisters," "Oklahoma!" and "Dancing At Lughnasa." Roles with other companies included Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," the title role in "Sweeney Todd," and Emile in "South Pacific."

The pinnacle was getting cast in the national tour of "Les Miserables" in 1990. Vilkin was in the ensemble but also understudied Javert, and went on many times as the persistent policeman.

"I felt like I was hoisted out of the ranks of community theater. Everything was the Cadillac," Vilkin recalls dreamily. "We had full-time hair people. ... They made us custom wigs in England. It cost about two thousand dollars. And they would make your boots custom for you."

Vilkin is an accomplished singer but only a self-described "mover" when it comes to dance. "Les Miz" gave him a crash course in the waltz. "I'm now the most expert waltzer after 386 performances," he says.

But Vilkin had never played the leader of the free world. Now he stands confidently on the stage in a generously lapeled suit that he'll wear in the show. ("I bought it on eBay," he says.) His shoes are shiny, and he has the kind of easy, down-to-earth poise that you just might see in a former Midwestern haberdasher who made it to the White House.

Like Langbehn, Vilkin clearly also admires Truman. "He did what he felt was right all the time. ... Wish we had that today."

As Truman, Vilkin sometimes muses to himself ("I can't help but wonder how Franklin would be running the show"), and sometimes addresses the audience. He has a lot to say about the other figures in his life ("Richard Nixon could lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time"), and a lot to say to them: Vilkin has several imaginary one-sided conversations in the play.

At one point, he discusses with Franklin Roosevelt the decision to drop the atomic bomb. When asked if the action bothered him, Truman says he had no choice. "I'd do the same damn thing tomorrow and not bat an eye if it would end the war," Vilkin says in character.

Speaking in character also means mastering a Missouri accent. Vilkin has been practicing — along with studying his lines — for months. It's a subtle accent, flatter, with different rhythms than California patterns. "It's a very horizontal sound," Vilkin says. "My friend said, 'You can picture the plains spreading out before you.'"

Vilkin will also have to whiten his hair. A young-looking 57, he is playing Truman when he was in his early 60s.

His director has confidence that he'll more than do justice to the role. "He is diligent and filled with humor and just keen to the challenge," Langbehn says.

Both director and actor are also big fans of the script. "It has a great sense of having people in the living room with a fire going and a glass of wine, and you're telling a great story," Vilkin says.

Langbehn says audience members don't have to be students of history to appreciate the play; the themes in Truman's life can feel surprisingly contemporary.

One scene re-creates a speech that Truman gave on the Senate floor in 1937. He criticized the United States' "worship of money instead of honor," and, like today's Occupy protestors, said financial control is in the hands of too few.

"There's all kinds of little resonances like that in the script," Langbehn said. "There's a lot for a modern audience to gain."

What: Palo Alto Players presents the one-man play "Give 'Em Hell, Harry," by Samuel Gallu.

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: The show previews at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 and runs through Feb. 5, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Tickets are $20 for the preview and $29 for other shows, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups.

Info: Go to http://paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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