Like the Mr. Rogers of Presidents, Jimmy Carter was a man who gently spoke the truth even when it wasn’t sunny news. Susan Lambert Hatem examines such a heartfelt and impactful moment from 1979 in her new work Confidence (and The Speech) now playing at Theatre Row. That Carter is warmly portrayed by April Armstrong, an African American actress of… shall we say limited stature… adds a brilliant and powerful punch. Placing Carter’s consciousness in such an unlikely body forces us to focus on the only things that matter: the president’s heart and mind. Whatever else can be said of our 39th president, he always tried to do the right thing starting from the time he sold his tiny peanut farm so as not to have any appearance of impropriety.
The set-up for Ms. Armstrong’s performance begins at present day Baynard University. Professor Cynthia Cooper has just wrapped up her session when she is approached by Jonathan (an outstanding Zach Fifer) who has been monitoring her class. He’s learned that she was an intern assigned to Camp David just prior to Carter’s infamous Crisis of Confidence speech. This address to the nation is consider by some to have been farsighted, though others see it as the moment Carter signed his fate as a one term Commander in Chief. Cynthia agrees to tell Jonathan everything about that significant time from her viewpoint on the condition that in her story it is she who is President Carter and that Jonathan walk a mile in her heels as Cynthia. With the assistance of grey suited dressers, the two take on their new roles and corresponding wardrobe skillfully designed by Vanessa Leuck. Fifer also captures Armstrong’s manner and cadence.
Their transformation is one of many clever moments orchestrated by director Hannah Ryan in the challenging layout of Theatre One. She and the entire female creative team — Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design), Christina Watanabe (Lighting Design), Emma Wilk (Sound Design), S. Katy Tucker (Projection Design), Deb Gaouette (Properties), Karla Garcia (Movement Direction), Bobbie Zlotnik (wigs) as well as Ms. Leuck — deserve a round of applause for developing such a slick production on a limited budget.
All the well known characters from the Carter administration are well drawn including Walter “Fritz” Mondale (Mark Coffin given little to work with just like a real Vice President), Hamilton Jordan (a suave Ross Alden), Jody Powell (appropriately brusk James Penca), Rick Hertzberg (a measured Imran Sheikh) and Pat Caddell (Stephen Stout stopping just short of Jack Black-ness.) But though this remains a story dominated by men, it is the voices of the women that are amplified in this retelling. We see how the strong bond with her husband gave Rosalynn (a gracious Sarah Dacey Charles) a special place in the administration. And we are introduced to Sarah Weddington (a too soft, too fast Abigail Ludrof) whose work on behalf of women’s issues influenced many, including Cynthia.
Confidence (and the Speech) provides an immensely satisfying opportunity to consider the pressing issues of climate change, equal rights, and basic decency in politics through the lens of a deeply invested observer. Performances of this 100 minute gem continue through December 7. Shyer audience members should be aware that if they answer the pollster making the rounds before curtain that, in a risky move by the playwright, they will be called upon to speak during Carter’s Town Hall. Tickets are priced $49-$69 ($89 premium) and can be purchased at www.confidenceandthespeech.com or at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 W. 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.)