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Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground

Tony Award-winner John Rubinstein's bravura performance should go a long way to resurrecting Eisenhower's reputation for those who see this engrossing evening.

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John Rubinstein in a scene from Richard Hellesen’s “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” at Theatre at St. Clement’s (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States and Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during W.W. II, isn’t much referred to these days. Those of us who grew up after his presidency came to think of him as having kept the peace after W.W. II and playing golf. However, Richard Hellesen’s one-man play, Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground which gives Tony Award-winner John Rubinstein a bravura role, should go a long way to resurrecting his reputation for those who see this engrossing evening. Directed by Peter Ellenstein, producing artistic director of the New Los Angeles Repertory Company where the play was first performed to great acclaim, Rubinstein gives a performance you won’t soon forget.

Based on a range of Eisenhower’s memoirs, speeches and letters, the play demonstrates without a doubt his belief in moderation and his liberal bent of which many people today are unaware. Set at his Gettysburg farm in 1962, two years after the end of his presidency at age 71, the premise is that while recording his memories for a book on his White House years, he is incensed by a New York Times poll of 75 historians which places him 22 out of 31 presidents, “a great American, not great president.” He then attempts to defend his life and work in the two acts that follow, with the first half taking us through W.W. II and the second half delineating his presidency.

Eisenhower begins by describing his childhood, how he received his moral teachings from his upright father and his religious teachings from his pacifist mother. In order not to cost his parents any money for his college education, he applied to West Point which is free and was admitted in 1919 after the first candidate failed the physical. His mother, who had let him make his own decision, went home and cried after seeing him off on the train. Given the task of setting up the very first training camp for the U.S. tank corps at the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield, he grew to love the area. Having moved 33 times when he was in the army, he owed his wife Mamie a permanent home which they found in the farm they bought 30 years later.

John Rubinstein in a scene from Richard Hellesen’s “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” at Theatre at St. Clement’s (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

He learned at the Command and General Staff College that “leadership isn’t throwing your weight around” but “getting somebody to do something because they want to do it.” In his training he learned to do his duty and work for the common good. His motto was to take a piece of ground and leave it better than you found it, hence the play’s subtitle.

He tells us that he never wanted the presidency, not even having chosen a party, and only pursued it when first General Douglas MacArthur and then Senator Robert Taft were considering runs. In 1948, President Truman asked him to run as a Democrat as Truman did not believe he could beat General MacArthur if he ran. Much of his remarks on the 1950’s sound presciently like the troubled 2020’s: appointed first commander of NATO he found his greatest opponents were  “another wing of the Republican Party: all the isolationists and America Firsters, whose idea of defending America was to bring everyone home and pull up the drawbridge” led by Sen. Taft. When Taft said the defense of Europe is not our burden, Eisenhower retorts, that it is not a burden but our responsibility.

As president, he relates that it takes “compromise, and conciliation, and persuasion.” He defends his action concerning controversial Sen. Joseph McCarthy on his hunt for existing or non-existing communists, pointing out that out of 200 Republicans in Congress, “185 were falling all over themselves to work with him!” He states to “always remember that truth is the bulwark of freedom – and suppression of truth is the weapon of dictators.” One wonders what he would think of our time when truth is in short supply and lies are the common currency of our news.

John Rubinstein in a scene from Richard Hellesen’s “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” at Theatre at St. Clement’s (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Eisenhower points out that although President Truman gets credit for saying “We’re going to desegregate the armed forces,” when he took office “two-thirds of the units were still segregated” and it was who Eisenhower had it done in a year and a half. Included in that were the V.A. hospitals, every school on every based including in the South, the Foreign Service and the District of Columbia.

He worries that the problem is “when people decide, ‘we’ll obey laws only when we personally approve of ‘em.’” He is proud of how he handled the Little Rock school desegregation situation but hopes no president ever has to call out the military to keep the peace in the U.S. again. Under his administration the first civil rights act since Reconstruction was passed and he blames Lyndon B. Johnson, Senate Majority Leader, for taking out the voting rights provisions. He most regrets the U2 incident (the reconnaissance plane shot down by the Soviets) when he had to lie for the CIA saying it was only a weather plane and as a result the Paris Peace Summit collapsed. He ends by saying that he hopes his record looks better over time. Ironically, we are shown the presidential rankings by historians since 1962 and as of 2022 Eisenhower has risen to #5 from #22.

At first, Rubinstein does not look or sound a great deal like Eisenhower. However, as the evening goes on he takes on his persona more and more and by the second half of the evening he sounds entirely like the former president. In what may be his best role, he is commanding throughout whether recounting the events of his life or his deepest held beliefs. One comes away from the play with a much greater regard for Dwight David Eisenhower than before.

John Rubinstein in a scene from Richard Hellesen’s “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” at Theatre at St. Clement’s (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Michael Deegan’s effective setting recreates the sun porch at the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with various groupings of furniture (desk with telephone, end table with tape recorder, sideboard with drinks, and an easel and chair) so that director Ellenstein is able to move Rubinstein around fluidly in the course of the play. Outside of the huge picture window is a view of Eisenhower’s back lawn and personal golf course and a wide view of the sky over Gettysburg. This is often used for Joe Huppert’s slide projections of people and places in his life – sometimes effective, other times intrusive. Costume consultant Sarah G. Conly has helped recreate the look of the 1950’s and early 196o’s which is the time period depicted. Storm clouds appear in the sky and punctuate the action, but whether this is the work of the lighting designer Esquire Jauchem or the projection designer it is difficult to say.

Aside from being an engrossing and informative evening in the theater, Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground is a much needed lesson in democracy in our divisive times. Mostly forgotten today, the life and career of Dwight David Eisenhower who had a tremendous influence on the first half of the 20th century is given a thorough review. True, some unflattering parts of his life are left out. However, as this is told from his point of view, this can be forgiven. John Rubinstein turns out to be a perfect fit for this role and gives a memorable performance which joins the ranks of several other historical one-person shows of high caliber.

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground (return engagement: Oct. 2 – 27, 2023)

New Los Angeles Repertory Company

Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit

Running time: two hours including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (984 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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