Ian Allen’s “Laura Bush Killed a Guy” finds a sweet spot between political satire and one of those evening-with biographical dramas that have been written about powerful women such as Ann Richards or Sue Mengers.
The premise is that we are spending 90 minutes with the former first lady as she tells her life story and makes three attempts to explain the vehicular homicide she was responsible for at the age of 17.
As Laura tells us in the opening moments, if you Google her name the first thing that comes up is a recipe for “Cowboy Cookies.” The second suggestion is “killed a guy” – the 1963 accident in which Laura ran a stop sign in Midland, Texas, and killed a young man she knew named Mike Douglass.
Allen starts each of the three acts with Laura telling us a version of the accident, the first being a wild Oliver Stone-style murder plot that is contradicted by two subsequent accounts that seem closer to the truth.
The accident is the one jarring note in the first lady’s placid public persona which has emphasized her belief in the importance of literacy – she studied library science – and the role she played as a stabilizing force in the life of her husband (Laura helped to counter gossip about his drinking and drug taking as a younger man).
Most of the time, Laura maintained what was perhaps the lowest public profile of a first lady since Pat Nixon was in the White House. She was a stark contrast to her activist predecessor, Hillary Clinton.
“The job of the First Lady isn’t political, it’s symbolic,” Laura tells us. “My job, my real job, was to look nice and go from tragedy to tragedy, giving sympathy and comfort along the way.”
Much of the comedy in the play comes from Laura’s sly digs at the Bush family, especially her mother-in-law who she blames for much of W.’s “wildness” throughout his life. She is also gleeful in the retelling of jokes at Barbara’s expense. It’s fun to watch the illusion of this famously careful public figure letting her hair down and filling us in on what she really thought of the Clintons and other powerful politicians.
Laura confides that politics drove her two daughters away: “From congressman, to governor, to President, it was tears and screaming and hurtful accusations and, finally, the complete abandonment of our lives. I’ve seen stories that claim they hate us. That’s certainly not true. They just hate everything about us.”
Allen does a masterful job of shifting from comedy to drama in scenes such as Laura’s account of 9/11 when her planned speech on Capitol Hill was suddenly rendered irrelevant and she found herself spending hours hidden away in a safe room with Sen. Ted Kennedy until the government got a handle on the terrorist attack.
The playwright and director John Vreeke found an awesome collaborator in actress Lisa Hodsoll, who is able to walk the very fine line between biographical portrait and send-up that is in the script. The way Hodsoll draws us in close at some moments, and then keeps us at arm’s length during others, is reminiscent of the finely shaded performance Philip Baker Hall gave as Richard Nixon in the solo play and film “Secret Honor.”
Near the end, Laura gets the last laugh on us and modern American history when she says, “We were good people. We did the best we could. And really, if you could have us back…wouldn’t you?”
(“Laura Bush Killed a Guy” is playing through July 8 at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas St. Photos by Joan Marcus)