Review Fix chats with “Give’em Hell, Harry!” director Joan Kane, and performer J. Dolan Byrnes, who discuss the production and why it matters in today’s political landscape.
About the Production:
The prolific Ego Actus Theatre Company presents a revival of Samuel Gallu’s one man exploration of the president that got us out of a war and not in one – Harry S. Truman.
Stage and film actor, J. Dolan Byrnes takes command of the role from October 18 – 28 (Thursday – Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p,m.) at the Episcopal Actors Guild, 1 East 29th Street, NYC. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at https://www.artful.ly/Ego-Actus.
In a younger life J. Dolan Byrnes worked as a Congressional Aide for a Member of Congress who stood up to the Reagan administration on a very important moral issue of the time and at great cost to her own career, a very Trumanesque thing to do. Coming from a working-class family with a keen interest in politics and an active involvement in local affairs, Byrnes says “It is the role of a lifetime to be able to portray this giant of a man. Truman fought for my parents and perhaps yours as well, average Americans working in the factories of post-World War II. He never forgot his farm roots, never lost his integrity, and always put “the folks” first; not the banks, not big business, not big unions, just “the folks.”
Review Fix: What was the inspiration for this project?
JOAN KANE: Harry Truman was a completely honest man. The contrast of him and his presidency to current events and the current office holder could not be starker. This play demonstrates that honesty works. The current administration proves that dishonesty only breeds more dishonesty, and everyone suffers as a result.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: A director friend of mine, Dennis Gleason, suggested that I read Give ’em Hell, Harry and consider taking it on as a project. After finally locating the only copy in NYC, at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, I sat in the secured room and read the script. It looked as if it had been typed on an old typewriter. What I read stunned me. Although it was written in 1975, to me it was as if it been written just the day before. Its relation to our present and its warnings about our future were glaring, a clarion call. The comparisons of the President in 1952 and the President in 2018 were stark and shocking. I believe this is a play whose time has come again and whose message must be heard and shared. Chicago recorded a song on its Chicago VIII album, the lyrics of which contain the following: “America needs you Harry Truman, Harry could you please come home”
So true man. That says it all.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
JOAN KANE: From the first time I read a play through, conceptualizing, casting, the design process, rehearsals and actually putting the play in a theatre, I work towards creating a unified, seamless, presentation that gives the audience every chance to become immersed in the story.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: I started by watching TV interviews of Truman and watching his speeches, and reading newspapers articles about him during his presidency. I have been reading biographies, particularly David McCulloch’s wonderful book “Truman” to get full and rich flavor of the man. I have also watched James Whitmore’s iconic portrayal in the 1975 stage production of Give ‘em Hell, Harry that was filmed for posterity.
Review Fix: What makes this different from the original?
JOAN KANE: I never saw the original production. That said, our production sensibility has to be completely different, not only because production resources are very different, but because the times we living in are so different. The contrast between Harry Truman and our current president is extremely stark.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: It, of course, is being performed in a different time. So much of its audience was not even born when Give ’em Hell, Harry was first performed at Ford’s Theatre in 1975. In its 1975 debut, it was a tribute to Truman; a controversial, oftentimes combative, but always a man of great integrity. I believe today it is much more than that. While it is a tribute to HST, it is also a beacon of light and hope. It extols what America can be at its best. It shines a light on greatness, dedication to purpose, a true patriotism that values the common good over the almighty dollar, and ironically enough, it shines a light on one man’s humility and humanity.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process? What did you learn about the country?
JOAN KANE: I learned that I am really afraid for the United States. As Harry Truman said, the worst thing that could happen is to get a liar in charge. We now have an entire political party and administration that lie about everything, just to cling to power.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: Excellent question! Of course I learned that I can memorize a 16,000+ word piece; that there’s still enough storage capacity in the old brain. I alsolearned that the zeal I have for this great experiment called America is far stronger than I thought. For all its flaws, it is still a wonderful idea that desperately needs to be furthered and refined. We are a deeply divided nation that is breaking into tribes. Perhaps Give ’em Hell, Harry, will inspire some younger folks to to get on the campaign train and “whistle-stop” their way to save this “last, best hope” from itself.
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
JOAN KANE: I am hoping this show resonates with the people who see it and spurs them on, the next time they vote. In the future we are looking at possibly taking this play on the festival circuit to spread the word of honesty in politics as far and as wide as we can.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: First, we hope that the show will be well received and that we can start to present at theatre festivals and possibly at locals theater venues around the country. Then who knows…….
Review Fix: What’s next?
JOAN KANE: The next production from Ego Actus will be Sycorax, Cyber Queen of Qamara, by Fengar Gael, directed by Joan Kane, opening at the HERE Arts center November 1 and running through November 18. We are also currently in negotiations for some 2019 projects.
J. DOLAN BYRNES: A few weeks break from memorizing lines. Maybe a little vacation. Then volunteer work for The Equity VITA Tax preparation program.