Theater shelves are packed with the stories of bystanders in the shadows of greatness: Salieri. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “Without someone in a tree/ Nothing happened here,” sings a boy who witnessed the signing of a treaty between Japan and Admiral Perry in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Pacific Overtures.” As the son of Founding Father John Adams, the nation’s first vice president and second president, John Quincy is not just any kid watching from a tree. Still, as Posner posits, the government career of Adams fils is propelled as much by the privileges of his rarefied circumstances as by the ambition that drives the more compelling figures of his extraordinary time.
Why is he worth a play? Posner, who also directs here, with an admirable appreciation for both civics and theatricality, takes into account an audience’s own potential skepticism about the project: “JQA” spans just 90 minutes and 10 sketch-like scenes, each dramatizing a brief but telling incident from the life of Adams, stretching from the time he was 9 in 1776 to 80 in 1847; he died a year later, in Washington. As if to evoke the contemporary blurriness of our vision of the title character, the four actors — Jacqueline Correa, Eric Hissom, Phyllis Kay and Joshua David Robinson — hand off the task of portraying him, by helping one another slip into a version of a maroon overcoat, tailored for each by designer Helen Huang. (They also play the various other historical characters.)
The devices of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” about Alexander Hamilton, now seem to have asserted themselves vigorously in our artistic reflections on early American history. Through this diverse cast, we are reminded that a legacy handed to us by a ruling class of Anglo Saxon men is one we all now share, in what Posner clearly defines as a perilous modern juncture for American democracy. “To be good, and to do good, is the whole duty of man,” Abigail Adams, as played with crisp authority by Kay, instructs her son.
It’s one of a slew of lines in “JQA” that encourage you to think of what’s going on today, of how the behavior of a leader raises and lowers the moral temperature of the nation. And so the play is revealed as one of the best to emerge of late about the deficits of this political moment. Here is another line, spoken by Hissom’s pragmatic House Speaker Henry Clay, about the nature of real leadership: “If you don’t learn to compromise,” he tells President Adams, “you’re going to be playing more golf than governing.”
You’re getting the idea, of course, so I don’t have to tell you which inveterate golfer he is really addressing. There’s just enough of this in “JQA” to activate one’s curiosity and not for the enterprise to become an exercise in finger wagging. The playwright has other concerns, thank goodness, that encompass the toll that Adams’s careerism took on his family. A diplomat before being elected president in 1824 and a House member after losing reelection to that hotheaded populist Andrew Jackson, Adams is portrayed as neglecting his children, with some dire consequences.
“JQA” might benefit from the establishment at its outset of some stronger authorial sense of the personal costs that public life exacted on its subject or, at the very least, how we might better relate to him. As it is, the opening scene, in which the quartet of actors deliberately speak over one another, to us — suggesting a competition over who gets to speak for him — is a bit twee. Raham’s set, on the other hand, with its platform ringed by dressing tables, to which the actors retreat from time to time, feels ideally theatrical.
From this launchpad, the play unfolds chronologically and through scenes with Adams’s father (Hissom), wife Louisa (Correa), Washington (Kay), Jackson and Frederick Douglass (Robinson). One of the best comes at the end, when the irascible Adams receives in his Washington office a junior congressman from Illinois who would go on, 18 years later, to write what might be irreverently termed the best emergency order a president ever issued: the Emancipation Proclamation.
To Correa’s Abraham Lincoln, Adams — now played by Kay — repeats the words his mother imparted to him, about how doing good is “the whole duty of man.” The advice rings out in “JQA” as if read from an ancient tablet that’s been recovered from a desert.
JQA, written and directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Meghan Raham; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Karin Graybash. About 90 minutes. $67-$115. Through April 14 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.