I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
July 27, 2013
Patricia Richardson and PJ Benjamin in a scene from I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan | Carol Rosegg
In 1981, US President Reagan (and former President of the Screen Actors Guild, where he led a shutdown strike in 1960) informed 13,000 angry Air Traffic Controllers that their demands for higher salaries and better equipment would not be met. He reminded them that their contracts prevented them, as Federal employees, from striking, and that anyone who did not return to work within 48 hours would be terminated. This play, I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan poignantly tells the story of two families of Air Traffic Controllers starting from that fateful time in 1981 and then concentrating on the characters’ lives after Reagan’s death in 2004. Down to the renaming of the Washington, D.C. airport for Reagan, it is clear that some people will never forget these polarizing events.
In 1981, Ray (PJ Benjamin) and his wife Jane (Patricia Richardson) are having a barbecue with their friend Buzz (Robert Emmet Lunney) and talking with certainty about succeeding in their strike. Ray and Buzz know each other from serving in Vietnam, and now share a career and apparently a sense of purpose. Jane plans to leave her job as a teacher. Their daughter is three years old, they need money, and it is risky to defy the government, but since no one else but the strikers are qualified for the job, they feel they should not back down. After some projections of news broadcasts (by David Bengali) from the strike, the action jumps ahead to 2004. Ray, now working in Construction but injured, is thrilled that Reagan has died. Jane, who is still a teacher and has been supporting the family, has seen Ray through mental collapse and rage that has eroded their communication. Ray enjoys watching Taxi Driver and other movies with Jodi Foster, because the man who shot Reagan was obsessed with her acting skills. Ray and Jane's daughter, Tess (Danielle Faitelson), is a 26 year-old actress who lacks discipline in most parts of her life. She is also secretly in love with Buzz's son, a union lawyer who followed this path because of the Air Traffic Controllers strike. Tension remains between Ray and Buzz because in 1981 Buzz broke the picket lines and thus saved his job. If the two former friends are not speaking, how can their children get married? Was Ray wrong to be part of an illegal strike? Does Buzz, like Reagan, "the best friend [the union] ever had in the White House," lack integrity? Various news clips add more depth to the debate, including one of NJ Governor Christie, full of himself, telling a crowd at the Reagan Library that the firing of the Air Traffic Controllers was one of the defining moments in his life. Ray's delusions reach the boiling point, bringing violence to all. Jane must think carefully about their future.
This story was quite captivating for me, who lived through these events, as by the end I can't say either side was right. But there is more universal appeal. How good is it, even if your life was affected by the decisions of higher powers, to hang on to the hope of revenge? How much faith should you have in the unions run by your fellow veterans? Aren't you free to make your own decisions? Do you ever really know your friends? Jane has grown to dislike Ray, but has never questioned his choice to strike. They took 26 years to tell their daughter that their former friend crossed the line. Perhaps some things can never be forgotten. Playwright John S. Anastasi weaves this intricate story, and director Charles Abbott evinces sympathy for all the characters. By the end, Ray's delusional behavior became painful to watch. All the actors are believable, with Danielle Faitelson as Tess, who barely remembers the actual strike, filling in as the voice of reason. Mostly it is Patricia Richardson as Jane who tries to bring together all the people she wants so dearly to coexist.