It was 1977, and a moment in which “Tricky Dick” was not as tricky as he needed to be.
It was the famous interviews of British talk show host David Frost with President Richard Milhous Nixon that playwright Peter Morgan cleverly used for his play “Frost/Nixon,” and which opens at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley Friday, June 8.
This freeze frame of a moment in America’s history focuses on the historic encounter between Frost, who had become a lowbrow laughing-stock, and Nixon, who had just resigned the United States presidency in disgrace over the disastrous Vietnam conflict and the Watergate scandal.
Determined to resurrect his career, Frost risks everything on a series of in-depth interviews to try and extract an apology from Nixon. The cagey Nixon, however, is equally bent on redeeming himself in his nation’s eyes. Nixon intended to easily outfox Frost, but as cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits resulted. In the television age, image is king, and both men are desperate to out-talk and upstage each other as the cameras roll. The result is the interview that sealed a president’s legacy.
The WICA production is directed by filmmaker and former Hollywood actor Richard Evans, and features Ken Church as Nixon and Jim Scullin as Frost.
From his perch in a new millenium, Evans takes a reflective approach to the direction of such a volatile mix of personality and media.
“In his struggle to humanize the participants in our nation’s disgrace, Morgan’s look back in anger provides a timely opportunity for reassessment of our current political circus, the system and its values,” Evans said.
“Speaking as one who has spent a great deal of his life in a land of make-believe, I recognize a terrible symbiosis between politics and theatre,” he said.
“At times destructive — at best a creative playground for the imagination — this unholy union is always a reminder of my own flawed nature. As for political agendas and what passes for transparency? I say, don’t buy the package until you know what’s inside. If you have trouble removing the wrapper, tear it open!”
Evans said it’s interesting that the play, with its traditional form, is rife with conflicting values, such as the tragedy of Vietnam and Cambodia, Nixon’s long-standing refusal to admit his role in the Watergate scandal, and the subsequent disintegration of an already weakened trust in government.
“The play is symmetrical and thus presents for me a challenge in dynamics,” Evans said, “— finding a key for the players to unlock history and rock and roll, tilt one way, then another; mirroring reality while retaining clarity of content. With another election in view, ‘Frost/Nixon’ could not be more timely.”
Finding what is askew in the symmetrical world of a television interview might indeed be found for Church within the folds of Nixon’s thorny face. The actor remembers him; his presence on television.
“Having lived through his presidency, I was always fascinated by Nixon’s ability to persevere despite his obvious disadvantages — not being particularly photogenic, having a rather dull speaking style, and having to rely almost entirely on his political calculations (however devious and manipulative they were) to win the day,” Church said.
Made more challenging for the unattractive Nixon, Church pointed out, by a television culture for which physical appearance and the ability to deliver a powerful speech were of the utmost importance to a politician.
“In terms of playing him, there is the obvious difficulty of portraying a contemporary figure,” Church added, “someone who has lived during most of our lifetimes.”
The actor researched the man to inform his approach to the character. What he found is a wealth of facts about his personal life, including tales of a difficult childhood, his modest background, his political success through sheer force of will, and a certain “me against the world” paranoia that was constant.
It also helps, Church said, that as a director Evans has shown a complete and utter confidence in his ability to play Nixon, having been directed by him a number of times before.
“Having been a working actor in Hollywood, he brings a particularly actor-informed sensibility to his directing, and seems to always get the most out of both the actors and the writing,” Church said.
On the other side of the symmetrical coin of the soundstage sits the iconic British character of Frost, another racing, anxious mind behind a much-photographed face. Scullin is confident in the challenge.
“I can only imagine the mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation that David Frost was feeling throughout this media history in the making,” Scullin said.
“I get to try these feelings on as I sit face to face with Mr. Nixon with the studio lights on, and the cameras running. This production attempts to give a glimpse into the humanity of the whole thing,” Scullin added. “What kind of a person was Nixon? What kind of person was Frost?” he added.
Of the historic interviews that were watched by millions of people, both then and now, Scullin said he admires Morgen for his focus on the human aspect of the event, rather than its spectacle.
“David Frost and I have nothing in common except our humanity, which is a great deal in common actually,” Scullin said.
It’s a high stakes situation on which the play capitalizes, he said, and he thinks audiences will feel its immediacy thanks to a hard-working cast and crew.
“I think you will see something quite more than you expected,” Scullin added.
Luckily, Evans said, he is working with a great cast, which understands the volatility of the characters.
“Ken Church’s rendering of Richard Nixon is the bravest performance you’re likely to see for some time,” Evans said.
“And Jim Scullin brings an impish delight to his David Frost. Peter Morgen’s play, like the Watergate scandal, will not be easily forgotten.”
The cast also includes Jim Carroll, Steve Ford, Elizabeth Grant, Taylor Harrison, Mikkel Hustad, Kira Keeney, Michael Morgen, Darcy Noonan, Adam Schults, Steve Smith, Tristan A.B. Steel, Bob Thurmond, Dwight Zehm and Don Zontine.
The play runs at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays from June 8 through June 23.
Tickets cost $16 for adults, $14 for seniors/military and $12 for youths. All seats cost $12 at Sunday matinees. For information, call the WICA ticket office at 221-8268 or 800-638-7631; or visit www.wicaonline.com.