FDR -- Theater Review

Ed Asner strikes a thrilling blow for justice.

Re-opening the Pasadena Playhouse -- which has emerged from Chapter 11 witha $1 million matching fund successfully met-- Ed Asner uses Dore Schary's "Sunrise at Campobello" (famously written for Ralph Bellamy) to issue a strong statement of support for the Obama administration, and for the rights of man.

Despite Franklin Delano Roosevelt's name on the script, the one-man show "FDR" isn't only about him. At least not when Ed Asner is putting out his heart and soul as actor and idealist into a role he's too short and too old for. He sports an outrageously bad hairpiece, and he is no Ralph Bellamy. But he sees in the story a King Lear role: alone and defiant against his own soul.

Asner's pacing is immaculate, and his absorbing phrasing communicates directly to the audience. Discarding any attempt at copying even the guise of FDR, Asner brings out the four-term president's relish for life by liberally throwing in stories, anecdotes and impersonations. The actor has developed the Sydney Greenstreet part of his physique and personality, especially in the enormity of FDR's laughter -- especially when the joke's on him.

Asner understands that nobody wants the burden of another's pain but that FDR -- and, by extension, the actor and every member of the audience -- inevitably must take on such burdens when the time comes. When he took his curtain call, Asner shook his fists in triumph.

The evening still has the requisite amount of enjoyable name-dropping, if you're interested in knowing what FDR thought of Louis Howe or his wife Eleanor. With Asner running full steam ahead in tour-de-force mode, the audience gets more than 90 minutes of punches: the problems with Eleanor, the mortal struggle against polio, the domineering mother, the Supreme Court packing, the virtuoso press conferences.

The evening's most dramatic point comes when Asner quotes an FDR speech in which the president proclaimed himself not a communist but an American, a Protestant and a Democrat; as he spoke, the audience visibly stirred.

The set is elegant and clean. And it felt good to be home again at the 83-year-old Playhouse -- the second-oldest regional theater in the U.S. -- eight months after it bid farewell with a run of "Camelot." Sheldon Epps, who has been artistic director since 1997, is back to guarantee stability, but financial uncertainty remains. The season will continue in November with a Leslie Uggams musical evening called "Uptown Downtown."

Venue: Pasadena Playhouse (Through Nov. 7)
Cast: Ed Asner
Playwright: Dore Schary