Fred Grandy portrays Harry Truman at Encore, and the show is remarkably timely and superb
DEXTER, MI – If you are wondering where and exactly when the United States political framework went completely off the rails with insurmountable partisanship to the point where neither Republicans nor Democrats have any hope of getting anything useful done, and you long for the days when things were possible, you will be surprised and maybe even delighted by Give Em Hell Harry, a one-man show about Harry Truman performed by actor Fred Grandy at The Encore Musical Theatre.
The show runs through Sunday, December 12, so get your tickets fast.
Grandy, famous for his role on “The Love Boat” series as well as leaving acting to become a four-term Republican Congressman from Iowa, is touring with the show that was first performed in the 1970s.
Directed by Hunter Foster, the selection of “Give Em Hell” was done, according to Grandy and Foster, because of the actor’s affection for Truman and the appeal of a one-man show during COVID restrictions.
Anyone who watches the news and keeps up with today’s politics will find many of the passages in the script a relevant as if they were written last week. For example, Grandy delivers a snippet of a speech he was directing at Senator Joe McCarthy in which he talks about “The Big Lie,” explaining, in Truman’s words from his second term and written into the script in the 1970s, that if you tell a lie often enough from a position of authority, people will begin to believe it. Truman even referenced Hitler with his take on “The Big Lie.”
There is also a passage in which Grandy as Truman calls the voting booth the most valuable piece of real estate in America, and if we sell that……”. Truman, a self-made man who had a scrappy childhood before marrying wife Bess whose Mother was a wealthy widow, also has a lot to say about the terrible effects of money in politics. The timeliness of this old show is astonishing, and reminds us all too clearly that the current state of affairs in America is not new.
Audience members turned to one another on these passages, and I was wondering if they were as astonished as I was that they were in a fifty year old script…or were they having an issue with the truth of it?
Grandy is a pro. He may not have been able to stretch himself or show his true chops on “Love Boat”, but he sure does here. He inhabits Truman without trying to mimic him. He does lean into Truman’s Missouri vocal pattern, but that is required for a show like this, and he does an excellent job.
One-man shows are tricky because it is all on one actor. In “Give Em Hell,” we get a lot of Truman talking to us as the President telling stories to an audience, peppered with go-backs to actual phone calls where we hear just his side of the conversation, as well as moments where he is writing a letter and he narrates what he is writing – as in the case of an infamous screed he wrote to a Washington Post music critic who bashed the performance of his daughter Margaret.
For those who grew up aware of American life and politics in the 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s, “Give Em Hell” will, or should, make you feel nostalgic for a time when people of some honor fought the blood-sport of politics. For younger audience members with an appreciation for history, they may wonder “what the hell happened…why can’t we have a guy like this today?”
The fact that Grandy was a Republican Congressman from a farm state should be a kind of chaser of credibility to those whose hackles might be up over the connective script bits about McCarthyism to today’s Republican Trumpism. It’s not a partisan play. It’s about a President that earned the respect of both parties over time. So let the lines land where they land.
While Truman is one of the most admired Presidents, often cited by Presidents of both parties as a model, let’s not over romanticize the times. Southern Democrats splintered away from the party when Truman integrated the military. And Eisenhower, hero of WW2, barely defended the attacks on General George Marshall, his mentor and one of the most distinguished Generals in US history, against empty and false accusations by McCarthy and Nixon of being a communist.
Through all of the dishonor and acrimony of post-war America, Truman was a ram-rod of truth-telling and honor. Those that indict him for dropping the A-bombs on Japan, are not to be dismissed. But neither are the intelligence reports of the time that the U.S. would lose 100,000+ troops trying to invade the country that attacked the U.S. Dec. 7, 1941.
Listening to Grandy deliver 90 minutes of Truman is a an absolute delight for those who remember better times, want to learn from history, still have hope for America and who want to see a thoughtful professional actor take us to another place and time that will make us think more about what we are doing today.