'Of Equal Measure'


The Center Theatre Group continues its assault on dead American presidents with the world premiere of Tanya Barfield's mind-bending exposé of Woodrow Wilson. Earlier this year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Old Hickory took a lickin' in Alex Timbers' "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Can that notorious bookworm Millard Fillmore be next?

In presenting a pointedly black take on Wilson in "Of Equal Measure," Barfield focuses on the racial policies that set back the cause of black civil rights at the federal level until the Truman administration. It's customary for whites to see Wilson as an admirable but failed liberal, but the truth paints a less savory picture, and Barfield is right in reopening the case. The subjective fury with which she brutally nails Wilson for his vain, egocentric, vacillating character is the key to how blind she believes the white mainstream can be.

Barfield signals her position by making the three black characters — a White House stenographer (Michole Briana White), her aspiring-artist brother (Christopher O'neal Warren) and their noble journalist cousin (Joseph C. Phillips) — the play's only well-grounded, "normal" characters. The whites, in stark contrast, are corrupt, cowardly, abusive or combinations of the three. Barfield seems to be saying that given such a perspective, you don't need to make a federal case out of it, that truth will prevail.

The downside is that, given the relative obscurity of the history lesson and the avalanche of detail with which Barfield and director Leigh Silverman litter the two hours, "Measure" might fail to capture the public's imagination as a theatrical entertainment. It's a problem compounded by Barfield's apparent lack of emotional investment in the characters and a lack of convincing relevance to the current Washington scene.

The production's strength is its enthusiastic cast and surface vitality as the action proceeds in a series of staccato episodes, accompanied by increasingly frequent (and distracting) scene changes.

Lawrence Pressman busts a gut as a disastrously neurotic president who's falling to pieces while trying to deal with war at home and abroad. JD Cullum is deeply eloquent as Wilson's Irish private secretary, Phillips commanding as the heroine's cousin and White quietly impressive in a small-scale way as the heroine.

It's clear that Barfield has an intriguing idea; it's not clear whether it's the play or the production that's not up to the task. It just might be that "Measure" is such a mind-bending look at history that Barfield and Silverman deliberately decided to let the truth sink in on the audience's ride home in the belief that truth will prevail.