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Prolific playmaker-about-town Aaron Posner says he chose John Quincy Adams as the subject of his entry in Arena Stage’s history-and-politics-focused “Power Plays” initiative because our sixth president was contradictory, admirable, resistant to identification as a liberal or conservative as we understand those terms today, and is now generally obscure. That he was the first of only two presidential sons in American history to ascend to the office himself is of less note than that he was one of only two ex-presidents to serve in the House of Representatives.
These are facts. But Posner has made it clear that JQA—his account of Adams’ life, abbreviated in form and in name—is otherwise imaginary, a picaresque Forrest Gumpian tour of our republic’s infancy that posits that while Adams served only a single term as president, he was in many, many Rooms Where It Happened during his 54 years in public service.
Posner’s script hopscotches through the decades in a svelte 90 minutes. We meet his subject as the 9-year-old eldest son of future President John Adams, and leave him an octogenarian nine-term Congressman sharing a word with a gangly freshman representative from Illinois. Along the way he’s sweet-talked into diplomatic service by George Washington (“You reek of integrity,” the general says) and swayed to the abolitionist cause by Frederick Douglass. It’s only in a scene with his spouse, Louisa, that Adams is depicted as a man of his time rather than ours. Raising the couple’s children “is your sacred work,” he scolds her. Nearly two centuries after JQA’s remarks, newly minted presidential candidate and former representative Beto O’Rourke apologized for joking about how his campaigning schedule shifts most of the burden of child-rearing onto his spouse.
Despite Posner’s comments about Adams’ ideological inscrutability, articulated in JQA’s program and elsewhere, he certainly makes him sound like a Great Society liberal when he’s at work: He favors publicly funded schools and scientific observatories, and champions the view that government can improve the lives of the governed—a heresy to many, the playwright reminds us, then and now.
If it never quite builds to a convincing case Adams didn’t get his due, it certainly never drags. And Posner’s assertion that President Adams’ lopsided loss to Andrew Jackson in his 1828 reelection bid—a charmless but good and reasonable man defeated by a hot-tempered huckster who sold himself as a populist—was the sort of retrograde notion that recurred again just recently fuels the evening’s most electric scene. In that confrontation, set in the White House after Jackson has won the election but before he has taken the oath of office, Eric Hissom appears as the heartbroken middle-aged Adams while Joshua David Robinson tears into the role of Jackson with vengeful aplomb. The Carolina accent Robinson affects as Jackson falls away as the scene heats up, but that’s a minor quibble.
I should explain: In a casting conceit that owes more to Caryl Churchill than to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Posner enlists four nimble actors of different genders, skin tones, and ages to play Adams, each of whom dons a magenta jacket for their turn as the title character like they’re picking up a baton. They each embody a number of other historical figures, too. Jacqueline Correa and Phyllis Kay are both as commanding as the youthful and aged versions of Adams, respectively, as the two dudes in the cast are. (Kay gets to play three different Adamses and George Washington to boot.)
The company remains on stage for the entirety of the show, sitting at individual dressing tables on the margins when they’re not in the scene. It’s an elegant visual way of emphasizing the “fiction” in historical fiction, and it reminds us that the marble monuments downtown and the faces on currency are all reflections of aesthetic and creative decisions, though we’re tempted to think of them as purely historical somehow. So if the pep talk Posner has JQA offer that Illinois congressman—one whose shadow over American history will loom much larger than his own— just happens to be exactly what E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial told Elliott before blasting off to his home planet (“Beeeee gooood”), well, it’s still sound advice.
To April 14 at 1101 6th St. SW. $40–$95. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.