Jimmy Carter, the longest living US president, remains prominent in the news close to 40 years since leaving office. Nowadays the coverage often runs to his health: a broken pelvis; bleeding in the brain due to falls. Each time, though, it seems he’s soon back at work for Habitat for Humanity, hammering and sawing with his wife of 73 years, Rosalynn.
A little more than 40 years ago — on July 15, 1979 — then-President Carter gave a speech. In it, he expressed worry for the nation’s resolve. More than the problems of inflation and an energy crisis, he said that “all the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America. What is lacking is confidence and a sense of community.” He didn’t use the word “malaise” in his Oval Office address, but its tone is why it’s remembered that way:
In an extremely agreeable surprise, Carter’s “malaise” speech may now have a new lease on life through a true sleeper of a play: Confidence (and The Speech), by Susan Lambert Hatem, running at Theatre Row through Dec. 7.
Hatem creates something of a historical fantasy that takes place in 2019 as well as at the White House and Camp David in 1979 — on a July 4 retreat of that year, and the 11 days that followed. The playwright imagines history professor Cynthia Cooper (April Armstrong), whose classroom is visited by a young man called Jonathan (Zach Fifer). Without explaining why he attended one of her lectures, he wants to know about Cooper’s time working for the Carter administration, and her involvement with the speech in question. (Cooper teaches at the fictional Baynard University — is Hatem thinking an amalgam of Barnard and Harvard?)
Cooper, though initially reluctant to delve into a period of her life in which she championed the failed ratification of Equal Rights Amendment, agrees to recall those days, but on the condition that she portray President Carter and that Jonathan play her young self. It’s a deft turn to gender-bending that buoys the work.
And presto-chang-o! It’s 1979, and Cooper, an unsure 20-year-old intern to the personable Carter, are now decked out in period attire by the production’s savvy costume designer, Vanessa Leuck. On stage, they’re surrounded by Carter’s cadre, including Vice President Walter Mondale (Mark Coffin), Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan (Ross Alden), Press Secretary Jody Powell (James Penca), pollster Pat Caddell (Stephen Stout) and speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg (Imran Sheikh). Sarah Weddington (Abigail Ludrof), an assistant to Carter and, more famously, the woman who represented “Jane Roe” before the US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, is also there. So is First Lady Rosalynn Carter (Sarah Dacey Charles). (Cindi Rush Casting does a fine job matching likenesses.)
Carter was originally supposed to give a speech on July 4. The energy crisis was raging and the speech was satisfying no one. Not everyone agreed on the path forward — Caddell’s view was thorniest; Mondale’s was most politically at odds with the president. Hatem closely examines the whole team as scene after scene unfolds on Brittany Vasta’s set, which transforms from a classroom to staff rooms to Cooper’s office. More disagreements are revealed as Carter tries to settle on what he himself would be most comfortable saying.
Equal time in this intermissionless play focuses on Cooper, who is repeatedly reminded that she’s there strictly to type and get coffee. Though she’s encouraged by Mrs. Carter, Waddington and even the president to let her voice be heard, Cooper lacks the confidence implied in Hatem’s title to do so. She attempts to gather some gumption when she comes across a report stressing the effect of climate change on the globe, notifying the team of Exxon scientist Henry Shaw’s prediction that only 40 years would be left to put things right. Here’s Hatem being clever again, placing Confidence (and The Speech) at the end of that 40-year frame, when we’re all smack-dab in the middle of a crisis that the current administration routinely dismisses as just another hoax.
But Cooper hasn’t the clout to make anyone see her information as anything other than a distraction. Although she recites a convincing argument in her head, she can’t speak it out loud. This is Cooper’s unassuaged regret as she and Jonathan return to 2019. And this is when Jonathan reveals why he dropped by her class. It’s another fantastical surprise that won’t be spilled here.
Confidence (and The Speech) might sound unrelievedly somber, but not as directed by Hannah Ryan. Indeed, it’s practically shocking in the charm it spreads. Hatem’s conceit is irresistible as she composes an account of how history could have been developed. The play delights in demonstrating how all these important figures, viewed through the eyes of a lowly but hopeful intern, might have reacted as they produced that memorable “malaise” speech from our shared American past.
As with Hamilton on Broadway — and, through Nov. 30, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, depicting President Lyndon Johnson — Hatem’s work possesses the potential to prompt a renewed interest in American history. That’s a compliment, to be sure.