Who’da thunk that our current administration’s dysfunction would prompt nostalgia for our eight years worth of W.? But that indeed is the curious takeaway from watching Lisa Hodsoll’s poignant impersonation of Laura Bush in a surprisingly touching comedy by Ian Allen, which is now playing in a world premiere production by The Klunch at Caos on F.
“And really,” the former First Lady says of that era, “if you could have it back today, wouldn’t you?”
At that the opening night audience went nuts.
Poised, charming, and gracious, Hodsoll enters in a polished white suit chit-chatting about her famous cookie recipe. Sudden car crash and fast flashback to Hodsoll staring into headlights: She’s at the scene of a collision in 1963, when 17-year-old Laura Welch ran a stop sign and hit a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old classmate named Michael Douglass, who died of a broken neck.
The facts of that crash are on the record. Snopes, for instance, has the scoop. And it’s no spoiler to look them up beforehand; having done so myself, I can attest I appreciated Allen’s invention all the more. And invent he does. Allen, who is artistic director of The Klunch, takes those fatal facts and plays with them wildly—surmising, for instance, various motives Laura may have had to murder Michael. But in the end Allen plays the facts straight. And by then, thanks to all the illuminating detail he has shared about her life (as someone who grew up wanting “to be the best girl in the world”), we are well prepared for the play’s emotional reality check.
Reportedly the role of Laura Bush was originally written to be played by a man in drag. Wisely, a woman was cast instead. Laura as researched and written really is a rounded and emotionally grounded character. And as played by Hodsoll, she is not at all a caricature or cartoon, which could have been the downside risk of not casting cis. Here and there in the script, however, are snide traces of Allen’s camp intention, and some of them could easily be excised. Allen, for instance, has Laura refer disparagingly to no fewer than four women (Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, and Tipper Gore) as looking “mannish” or like “a man.” Despite Hodsoll’s earnest efforts, these insults come across as gratuitously out of character.
The cheesy hook of the title, Laura Bush Killed a Guy, is no doubt what will catch attention for Allen’s script and lure in audiences. But after all the laughs (of which there are many; this show’s a hoot), what his play leaves one with is much richer and deeper than its lurid title might suggest: In a production performed with radiant wit by Hodsoll and sensitively directed by John Vreeke, Laura Bush Killed a Guy is a memorably moving portrait of a forgotten First Lady.
We hardy knew her, it seems. And maybe now we miss her humble gentility, her guileless integrity, qualities in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania these days. Of course we never warmed to her husband as she did—she loved him completely and sincerely, about which the script is unequivocal. But as in all live theater when a character seen through another character’s eyes becomes someone more than we see with our own, the strangely affecting aftereffect of Laura Bush Killed a Guy is how Laura Bush loved a guy.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Laura Bush Killed a Guy plays through June 4 2017, at The Klunch performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 866-811-4111 or at the box office 30 minutes before showtime.