Phil Johnson as Theodore Roosevelt in “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear.” Video still by Michael Brueggemeyer

By Pat Launer

Imagine, if you will: A forceful leader who’s not an autocrat, who has a big heart, intellectual curiosity, genuinely effective deal-making skills, and an earnest desire to help the poor and the disenfranchised.

He was our 26th President. And a Republican, to boot.

You’ll meet him in “Roosevelt: Charge the Bear,” a world premiere solo play, the second such effort by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson.

Johnson, co-founder of the four year-old Roustabouts Theatre Co., stars, as he did in Freedman and Johnson’s first collaboration, “A Jewish Joke.”

This time, he inhabits the Rough Rider, the Bullmoose, Theodore Roosevelt (Don’t call him Teddy!). Johnson looks convincingly like the man who did not walk softly and carry a big stick, though he advised others to do so. This man is fearsome and fearless.

Roosevelt, the former (reluctant) VP, has recently taken over the Oval Office after the assassination of President William McKinley.

The year is 1902, and times are tough. The cabinet and Congress are considerably less than welcoming or supportive. Nearly 200 coal miners just died in an explosion. Now, 140,000 miners are on strike, fighting for shorter hours, better pay, and the mere recognition of their union (the UMW, United Mine Workers).

If coal mining stops, Roosevelt knows, trains and factories will stop. And when winter comes, people will “freeze to death in their homes.”

“The bear,” the famous big-game hunter says metaphorically, “is now stalking me.” (On a personal note, I’ll never forget all those huge animal heads mounted on the walls of his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island).

The wealthy mine owners (with names like Morgan and Carnegie) want him to back off. The miners are begging for his help.

Flouting social and political custom, he responds to the people’s pleas.

In this generally fact-based story, Roosevelt is haunted by a letter from a 13-year-old miner whose 9-year-old brother is already showing signs of black lung disease, from working down below. The President carries the letter with him so as not to forget.

A self-proclaimed “man of action,” Roosevelt takes a train ride through the Northeast coal states, meeting with and listening to the people.

He got his sense of character, he tells us (though it’s not exactly clear who “we,” the audience are supposed to be), from his father, Theodore Sr., who helped build him from a young, bullied, asthmatic weakling into a robust, indomitable leader, who later had a boxing ring installed in the basement of he White House.

As he tries to bring the opposing parties together for arbitration, he says, “I appeal to your better natures, in the name of patriotism.” (Wouldn’t it have been nice to have heard those words a time or two in the past four years?).

The buildup to the strike resolution is suspenseful. The backstories in between the battles and strategizing — about his father and his family; his physically disabled sister; his two wives (his mother and his first wife died within hours of each other); and his chip-off-the-block animal-loving children — offer the personal, sometimes sentimental touch that make the narrative a lot more than some dry, didactic history lesson.

Under the nuanced direction of Rosina Reynolds, Johnson is masterful in the role, displaying an expansive range of emotions, from grief to bluster, anger to compassion. It’s a bravura performance.

The excellent production, filmed in a private studio, is centered in the Oval Office, but there are multiple mini-locales (outstanding set design by Tony Cucuzzella), expertly lit (Joel Britt), that take us with him on his vigorous walks, his train rides, his moments of rumination and uncertainty. The sound (Matt Lescault-Wood) is crisp, the costume (Jordyn Smiley) is apt, and the photography and editing (Michael Brueggemeyer) are first-rate.

The play couldn’t be more timely, couldn’t pierce your soul more deeply. It also reminds you of the kind of behaviors and actions that earn a face on Mt. Rushmore.

“Roosevelt: Charge the Bear” gives us a peek at real leadership, compassion, empathy, and democracy at work.



Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.

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