As the fourth production of its 20th-anniversary season Bristol Riverside Theater is offering Michael O. Smith’s “The Bully Pulpit.” This one-man show, featuring Smith as both writer and actor, celebrates the life of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt.
The entire show takes place at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s home on Long Island, after he is no longer president. The occasion is his 60th birthday, and at the beginning the audience is treated like guests in his living room. From time to time he interacts with some of these guests, encouraging them (with the promise of a silver-dollar prize) to show their knowledge of his story by supplying a missing word or finishing an anecdote. By the end of the play, this structure has changed slightly, as Roosevelt interacts directly with imaginary characters on stage, his children for example.
The set, designed by Marcella Beckwith (who also did the costumes), is stunning and does a wonderful job focusing the time and place. It presents a single room in what is clearly a large late-19th/early- 20th-century house, obviously the property of a wealthy family. The details are cleverly chosen and add to our understanding not just of Roosevelt’s social position but of his passionate interests and convictions as well. They also help move the story forward. Among the many telling details are two formal portraits that hang in a prominent spot, the only formal portraits in the room: one of George Washington and one of Abraham Lincoln. Hunting trophies are apparent, but not made much of: a moose head, a deer’s head, a bear rug. An umbrella stand is full of swords, a teddy bear sits on a desk.
Smith’s transformation into Roosevelt is helped by Charles Reece’s lighting and Daniel Little’s sound design. The director, Richard Hopkins, is artistic director at Florida Studio Theater where “The Bully Pulpit” was first performed.
Sagamore Hill is today a National Historic Site, managed by the National Park System, and there remain over 80 acres of woods, fields, salt marshes, and beach, home to a wide variety of animals. This would have pleased Roosevelt, who was dedicated to saving open space and preserving existing species. As Roosevelt reminds us toward the end of the play, he created five national parks and 150 national forests, and protected 51 bird species.
His varied career included serving with the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War (with a military uniform made by Brooks Brothers); as well as civil service commissioner, head of the police in New York City, undersecretary of the Navy, and vice president under McKinley. He also tells us that he was the first president to have an automobile as his official vehicle, the first president to ride in an airplane, and the first president to ride in a submarine. He may have enjoyed hunting, but in addition to saving species and their habitat, on some of his post-presidential trips to Africa and South America he discovered material of serious interest to the scientific community.
The play abounds with piquant details about Roosevelt. Most people know that the teddy bear was named for him, but it’s perhaps less well known that he invented the Maxwell House motto, “good to the last drop,” or that he was the first president to call the official presidential home the White House. There was also a telling game he played with both his children and his friends — the obstacle race — in which any object in the way on a path from A to B could not be gone around but had to be gone over, under, or through. Presumably the author wanted us to see this as indicative of Roosevelt’s character.
Faced with the wealth of material Roosevelt’s active and varied life produced, Smith decided to concentrate on what was fun about Roosevelt. Although there were many serious problems during Roosevelt’s presidency and many losses in his personal life, his spirits always seem to have rebounded. Smith does a striking job bringing his script to life, and there’s no doubt the script enables the actor to shine. But despite the dramatic elements in Roosevelt’s life, it probably makes sense to think of “The Bully Pulpit” as a one-man show rather than a drama.
“The Bully Pulpit,” through Sunday, March 18, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, One-man play written and performed by Michael O’Smith based on the life of Teddy Roosevelt. $34 to $37.215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.