Could you imagine feeling sympathy for Richard Nixon and ultimately finding him to be likable? North Carolina Stage Company poses that question and many more in Peter Morgan’s riveting and entertaining Frost/Nixon. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 4 — up to this year’s midterm election, which surely isn’t a coincidence.
In the late 1970s, British talk-show host David Frost conducted a series of interviews with Nixon. These took place a couple of years after Nixon’s resignation as president of the U.S. under the scrutiny of the Watergate scandal. Not overtly political, Frost simply wanted the exclusive interview and the potential fame that came with it. Nixon, under the advice of his team, wanted a chance to rehabilitate his image.
The ugliness of pure partisanship rears its head in the form of some of Frost’s team, who simply want to get a confession out of Nixon and essentially convict him in the public eye. They are riled when Frost seems content to get a more humanized version of Nixon on tape, showing a sad, flawed-yet-likable man. They are elated when Frost elicits the famous quote from Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”
Willie Repoley was born to grow a groovy ’70s head of hair and wears it well as Frost. He also holds the center of the play as a TV personality who is desperate for success. Repoley’s Frost is the beating heart of the show and allows the audience to shake loose some of their more jaded political views as they see Nixon through Frost’s eyes.
As Nixon, veteran actor Michael MacCauley may not look like the former president, but he so flawlessly inhabits the essence of Nixon that you are transfixed by his every word and gesture. The play begins with his resignation speech. As the scene changes, MacCauley rises and exits the stage, and, in silhouette, he so resembles Nixon it caused this reviewer to do a double take. This performance is a crowning achievement for MacCauley.
Director Angie Flynn-McIver sets a brisk pace and trusts her actors and the material to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. She has also assembled a tight ensemble of actors who fill out myriad other roles in the show. Performances from Marc Cameron, Carin Metzger, Samantha LeBrocq, Chandler Vance, Ben Mackel and especially John Gripentrog, Scott Keel and Catroi Swann serve as the glue that holds the lean show together.
It’s emotional to watch Nixon become an eloquent and measured man who ably defends his position in a reasonable way. The notorious president was a flawed person, and he knew it. And, in many ways, he was humbled by it. You can’t help but wonder if future presidents, when faced with scrutiny and the guilt of potential crimes, will be so cool under the glare of that spotlight.
In the current political climate, Frost/Nixon seems to especially resonate.
WHERE: North Carolina Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Nov. 4. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $17-34