Dallas — If you’ve never toured the White House or had a chance to meet the resident hostess, don’t miss Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty, by Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka, for a fascinating inside look at what it takes to do what Pat Nixon called “the hardest unpaid job in the world.”
In a 90-minute one-woman show mounted by One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center, Marty Van Kleeck, co-founder of the company, portrays three first ladies. Each is preparing to leave the White House and recalling personal memories of their roots, their deeply committed relationships to their husbands’ careers and ambitions, as well as their own accomplishments. One-Thirty Productions co-founder Gene Raye Price directs the show.
The insightful biographical play, which featured co-author Bromka in its New York premiere in 2013, is a series of three vignettes, all set in a handsomely furnished private parlor in the White House, designed by Rodney Dobbs. Two efficient white-gloved butlers quickly switch out vases and paintings between scenes to reflect each first lady’s taste and style. Wig designer Coy Covington provides the telling first-rate hairstyles for the show, and the director and star designed the costumes.
Van Kleeck first appears in a black wig and a bright red suit as the good natured and easy-going Lady Bird Johnson. With her Texas drawl and down-to-earth philosophy, “Bird” tells warm-hearted stories of learning to love nature from a maiden aunt in Alabama, and through childhood explorations of Caddo Lake. She admits she can’t tell a joke, and Van Kleeck has a hilarious bit with Lady Bird’s attempt to deliver a Republican joke, and flubbing the punch line. Lady Bird’s recollections of LBJ’s determined pursuit to marry her after their first date are funny and endearing, and Van Kleeck never flubs her delivery of a good story. Lady Bird makes no apology for her dutiful adoration of her husband, but is proud of her personal tour of the south after the Civil Rights Act. She recalls the horrific moments of the Kennedy assassination and the whirl of events that landed her in the White House, always remembering Jackie Kennedy’s heroic stance through it all.
Even before Van Kleeck takes the stage as Pat Nixon, we hear radio clips of Watergate and the scandals surrounding Richard Nixon’s resignation. In a blonde bob wig and a flared coral two-piece dress, Van Kleeck’s Pat instantly lights a cigarette and picks up a copy of People magazine. She speaks in a slight California accent, and sits down to eat alone, since “Dick eats alone in his office.” Pacing nervously, she tells us “ninety times around this room equals a mile.” She’s proud that she writes letters to all the people who write to her. Her life seems terribly lonely. She pauses and lights another cigarette, and admits, “I hate speech-making.” Her memories of being humiliated and unprepared in a Barbara Walters interview clearly still evoke pain, although Pat holds it together as she prepares to leave the White House.
Van Kleeck’s Betty Ford enters in her housecoat and a frowsy wig, drink in hand. She plops down on the sofa and declares, “I was sorry for Dick, but happy for Jerry,” her Midwesterner’s accent twanging. Her recollections include not only the hard work in her husband’s many campaigns, but her eventual realization that she must take care of herself. As she prepares to leave the White House, she’s getting ready for the customary tea with the next first lady, Rosalind Carter. “I wonder if she’d like cocktails instead of tea,” she says, smiling her knowing smile and recalling the great parties she hosted.
As she leaves the stage,” she waves and calls out, “Alright, Mrs. Carter, you’re on!” The job of first lady is truly a demanding long-running show. The full house at the show I saw on Thursday afternoon stood and cheered for Van Kleeck’s performance. I think audiences also cheer for the dynamic women she celebrates.