By Kimberly Rau
JQA, an original work by Aaron Posner, takes a look at the accomplishments and struggles of John Quincy Adams through a series of completely fictitious (but entirely plausible) vignettes. Posner, who also wrote Stupid F*#@ing Bird which ran at Wilbury Theatre Group in 2016, uses modern language to contemporize concepts that are just as relevant today as they were 200-plus years ago. While this may sound like a certain Tony Award-winning musical, it’s similar in that basic concept only. This riveting piece of theater focuses on a man desperate to be a different person than he was raised to be, but duty to country and family are both powerful forces that pull him from those dreams.
Under the direction of Tony Estrella (and associate director Tyler Dobrowsky), four actors bend time, narrative and gender to showcase defining moments in the former president’s life that are, again, made up, but certainly could have happened. All of the actors trade off roles, and over the 90 minute play all represent Adams at some point. There’s the scene in his father’s study when the elder John Adams tries to impart a sense of moral responsibility on his son (played by Helena Tafuri), who allegedly may have tortured the family pet. There’s the moment when George Washington (played beautifully by Candice Brown, who also takes on the title role, Abigail Adams and an older version of Louisa Adams with equal mastery) presses the young-adult Adams into service as his ambassador to the Netherlands. A poignant scene between the young Louisa (Tafuri) and her husband John Quincy Adams (Jonathan Higginbotham) shows that despite his best efforts, Adams is not doing much better in the parenting department than his father did, and an explosive confrontation between incoming President Andrew Jackson (Higginbotham) and the outgoing Adams (Norman Beauregard) exquisitely showcases Adams’s unwillingness to compromise and reminds the audience that party politics have always been polarizing. Or, as ninth secretary of state Henry Clay (Beauregard) reminds then-president JQA in another scene, if you can’t compromise, “give them something to fear.” A couple of scenes felt a bit out of place (the vignette where an elderly Adams and Louisa mourn the death of a son we have only heard about in passing probably could have had its point included elsewhere) but it’s not enough to detract from the strong script and fine work the actors are doing.
And the actors are doing very fine work. All of them take on at least three roles, switching hats (and waistcoats) at a moment’s notice and digging deep to bring unique characteristics to each one. Brown’s George Washington and JQA are both knowledgeable men of authority, but still completely unique to each other. Tafuri literally goes from a headstrong young man to a caring mother and wife in a blink, and the transition is seamless. Beauregard is a gruff John Adams but also a vulnerable John Quincy Adams who is mourning the loss of a second term. And Higginbotham gives us a crass, blunt Andrew Jackson but also a thoughtful, sensitive Frederick Douglass. It’s a lot to pack into an hour and a half, but these four do it and make it look easy.
The frustrating truth is that America and its politics have always been divided and fraught with conflict. We don’t need to look very far to see that the idea of working for the greater good seems to be lost on those with the most power. But through this jaw-clenching we also get a ray of hope: Even in the darkest times, there are people willing to try. One of the final scenes is a quite elderly Adams meeting with a young Abraham Lincoln. Adams reminds him that the road ahead is going to be very difficult indeed, but adds that the most important thing is to do everything possible to stand up for what’s right.
“Do more,” he implores Lincoln, and, clearly, the audience. “Please, do more.”
JQA runs through November 17 at the Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd.,Warwick, RI. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266.