Thursday, May 13, 2021

Palo Alto Players goes live with 'Tea for Three'

From left: Gwendolyne Wagner as Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Tyler as Betty Ford, Gabriella Goldstein as Pat Nixon. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid) 

 Local theater lovers finally can see a fully staged play in person thanks to Palo Alto Players.

Celebrating its 90th season, the company is presenting “Tea for Three, Lady Bird, Pat and Betty” by Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka.

As the title implies, the play focuses on the first ladies who occupied the White House during the tumultuous period between 1963 and 1977.

It opens with the sound of President Lyndon Johnson announcing in 1968 that he will not seek a second elected term in office. Then his wife, Lady Bird Johnson (Gwendolyne Wagner), begins a 25-minute monologue talking about her life and her relationship with the president.

As vice president, LBJ became president on Nov. 22, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She talks about that terrible day and the actions of Jackie Kennedy, who nevertheless gave her a White House tour a few days later.

Now Lady Bird is preparing to give her successor, Pat Nixon (Gabriella Goldstein), a tour.

Pat’s monologue is preceded by Richard Nixon’s resignation speech on Aug. 9, 1974, during his second term following the Watergate scandal, which she thinks was a setup. Like Lady Bird, she discusses her life and relationship with her husband.

She does this while awaiting her successor, Betty Ford (Patricia Tyler), whose husband, Gerald, became vice president after the resignation of Spiro Agnew, and then president after Nixon’s resignation.

Unlike the two women before her, Betty is still in her dressing gown while waiting for Rosalynn Carter, whose husband, Jimmy, defeated Ford in the 1976 election.

And unlike the other two, she drinks and takes pills, which she said she uses for arthritis pain. Although the play doesn’t say so, she founded the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

But like the two before her, she talks about her relationship with her husband and her own life, which included a divorce and a successful battle against breast cancer.

The 75-minute, intermission-less play is ably directed by Patrick Klein, the company’s artistic director with costumes by R. Dutch Fritz.

Although it’s a live performance, it’s far from usual. Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has halted live performances for 14 months, it involves numerous safety protocols.

It’s staged outdoors in the grassy patio of the Lucie Stern Community Center. Attendance is limited to about 50 with patrons seated 6 feet apart singly or in pairs. Masks are required.

Because it’s outdoors, early evenings can be chilly, so dressing in layers is advised.   Airplane noise and sounds from the neighboring Junior Museum & Zoo can be heard, but they don’t interfere with enjoyment of this interesting look at the nation’s recent past.

Live performances will continue through May 23 at 1305 Middlefield Road. Streaming performances will be available from May 19 through May 23.

For tickets and more information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit