Love Field (bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company) runs at the Tap Gallery in Sydney from October 24 – November 2. By Ron Elisha, directed by Michael Dean.
It was the shot heard around the world. John F Kennedy slumped in the car next to his wife Jacqueline, whose designer clothes were suddenly covered in blood and viscera. Only hours later, as the world reeled, his deputy Lyndon Baines Johnson would be sworn in as the 36th President of the United States of America.
The premise behind Love Field is a relatively simple one: what happened on Air Force One between Jacqueline Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as they flew back to Washington together with JFK’s body? What did they say? What could they say to each other? This sounds like a fascinating conversation – and for brief period during the hour-long show, it is – but sadly, the execution in this play is sadly lacking. Love Field feels like the playwright read both their Wikipedia pages and then wrote Jackie Kennedy/LBJ shipper fan fiction.
This is not to say that there is an obligation for the conversation to be as close as historically accurate as possible (we cannot know, after all, what happened between these two). I’d go so far as to say that there’s not even an obligation to be emotionally accurate, if you’re trying to tell a story bigger than the two people involved in it – which, when there is a nation involved, you think you might be. But a lot of this show felt like, “oooh, here is this fact about one of the characters! how can I possibly shoehorn this in?” And it didn’t feel like it was trying to tell a bigger story than the two characters either, despite the constant references to the office of president. (In the program, playwright Ron Elisha writes that the play is a part of a triptych about the male psyche. I can’t say that I saw much of that in evidence.) It was about these two people on this plane in this extraordinary situation, and what they said to each other. Which leads us back to the question of emotional accuracy: if you are going to tell a small story about two people, even if that story has global consequences, then it needs to be emotionally believable.
bAKEHOUSE are lucky enough to have two very, very fine actors cast in this piece: Ben Wood as Lyndon Johnson and Lizzie Schebesta as Jackie Kennedy. (Schebesta is, to my mind, one of the finest actresses working onstage in Sydney today.) They try to chart the emotional journey of these two characters in a believable way. They really do. And to an extent, they succeed. You feel for LBJ, the big boy from the South who has spent his whole political life characterised as a hick and who feels terrible about how excited he is to be President. You feel for Jackie, the confused widow who is desperately grieving for her husband and simultaneously enraged at him for his philandering. But they are hampered by a script that takes them into some really, really bizarre and confusing places, not allowing for real organic emotional development.
I think the problem with the script is essentially that it can’t decide what it wants to be or what it wants to do. One of the key questions I think should always be asked when putting on a show is, “why this play? why here, and why now?” I can’t answer any of those questions when it comes to Love Field. It’s not really a political play, but it’s not really a personal one either. It sits uneasily between these two poles in a kind of theatrical no man’s land. It didn’t really make me think, and it didn’t really make me feel that much either – full credit to the actors that it made me feel as much as it did. I think that, with some redrafting and workshopping and focusing, there could be a script worthy of Schebesta and Wood. Love Field, in its current form, is not that script.