We are all encouraged to live long, full lives, developing our minds, bodies and spirits to the greatest possible extent, drinking deep, reaching high and searching far. The problem is -- as "Mountain," which opened Monday at Ford's Theatre, amply demonstrates -- if you really do all that, it's darned hard to make a play based on your life.
"Mountain" casts the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as nothing less than a giant. Rising above a hardscrabble childhood in which he survived infantile paralysis, the death of his father and poverty, Douglas got scholarships for college and law school, served Franklin D. Roosevelt in several capacities, trekked in the Himalayas, was appointed to the court at age 40, drove across the Middle East, wrote books, married four women and stood up for what he believed in most of the time.
Playwright Douglas Scott clearly reveres Douglas, and that's unfortunate. Douglas was certainly an amazing fellow, an iconoclast of the highest order, courageous in his views and his style, but as far as I know, sainthood has not yet been conferred on him. Scott acknowledges that the man had flaws -- "he loves humanity in general but hates people in particular" -- but the way he deals with these shortcomings makes them seem almost like virtues. Dumped his wife of 28 years for a more sophisticated woman? He was just too robust a guy to stay in a dead marriage. Ignored his son while pretending to be Father of the Year? There was important work to get done! Sold out his conscience on one case with an eye toward sharing the presidential ticket with FDR? At least he saw what he was doing and felt bad about it.
Perhaps the problem is not so much that Douglas is portrayed as a paragon, but the way the playwright tells us what he wants us to know. This is Soundbite Theater, events reduced to a pithy statement or epigram, a life told in headlines and good quotes. It is neither a play nor a documentary, but part reminiscence and part liberal soapbox.
There is a cast of only three -- Len Cariou, who plays Douglas with appealing vigor, and two others to portray all the other men and women in his life, from Richard Nixon to Douglas's fourth wife, Cathy. As valiantly as they try, it is impossible for them to more than outline a character in the few seconds allotted to each, adding to the sense that we are viewing Douglas's life from one of the speeding trains he apparently liked so well.
It is not that the judge's life lacked drama; there are many incidents that are so intriguing one wishes for more -- more exposition, more of a scene, as in actors talking to each other rather than making announcements to the audience.
How interesting, for example, that Douglas believed Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty, but stayed their executions because, according to the relevant code, the sentence should have been imposed by a jury rather than a judge.
Gordon Hirabayashi, a conscientious objector of Japanese descent, was sent to prison during World War II for refusing to go to a relocation camp. Douglas, that great champion of individual rights, went along with the decision, believing at the time that he was going to be asked to run for vice president with Roosevelt, and that dissenting in this case during wartime would not play well with the American public. This too sounds like an episode with dramatic potential.
And what about that crazy trip across the Middle East with his second wife, Mercedes? ("He took the photos and I fixed the car," she says, after they have listed an epic series of mechanical mishaps.) After his travels, Douglas told the State Department that its policy in the Middle East was all wrong. Something about not "policing the world." It was not pleased to hear from him.
Douglas loathed Richard Nixon, at least according to playwright Scott, whose frequent jabs at the former president indicate that he has no fondness for him either. It pleased Douglas to serve long enough to watch Nixon resign.
And what of Douglas's later years, his stubborn refusal to leave the court and open a spot for a conservative appointee until his health, following a stroke, had so deteriorated that he pathetically could not remember what question he was about to ask? Here too is the stuff of engrossing drama, but glided over like yesterday's news. When every event is a big event, when all the moments are highlights and none are low, all the emphasis is the same. You can't have a mountain without a valley, as the Douglas of this play might have said.
Len Cariou cannot be blamed for any of the evening's shortcomings. He plays Douglas like a big tree, wide and solid. He has a splendid laugh that conjures up a man who truly enjoys life, and travels between ages in a way that lets you see the boy in the man and vice versa. Would that he had more to work with.
Ivar Brogger and Heather Summerhayes play more characters in this piece than they probably have in their entire careers, but that can't be too rewarding when most of them disappear in a couple of lines. Brogger does particularly well by Louis Brandeis and Hirabayashi, and any actor who plays four presidents (Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford) in two hours deserves a guided tour of the White House.
Mountain, by Douglas Scott. Directed by John Henry Davis; set by Philipp Jung; costumes by David C. Woolard; lights by F. Mitchell Dana; score and sound by John Gromada. With Len Cariou, Ivar Brogger and Heather Summerhayes. At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 29.