Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Arena Stage
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Queen of Basel and Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

Phyllis Kay and Eric Hissom
Photo by C. Stanley Photography
John Quincy Adams—for purposes of this review, JQA—was a fascinating historical figure: the first son of a U.S. president to serve in the office himself (the second was George W. Bush); a brilliant lawyer and diplomat; the only former president who, following his defeat after one term in office, served in Congress for many years. Playwright and director Aaron Posner places this often contradictory figure at the heart of his play JQA, now in its world premiere production in Kogod Cradle at Washington's Arena Stage, but treats him less as a person and more as a symbol of American determination and idealism.

As Posner explains in his program notes, his portrait of JQA is not meant to be historically accurate. He uses Adams, and his family members and intimates, as a lens through which he examines contemporary U.S. political life, especially where integrity fits in the process. Admirably, he never pushes the parallels too far; he allows one character to suggest stoking fear as a way to gain political dominance—then leaves it there.

Perhaps because JQA had such a complex and multifaceted personality, Posner has written the character to be performed by all four members of the cast at some point. It's easy to follow who is who because, as costumed by Helen Huang, each actor (two men, one white and one African-American, and two women) dresses in a red frock coat when portraying JQA.

While Jacqueline Correa, Phyllis Kay and Joshua David Robinson all perform creditably in their shifting roles, Eric Hissom outshines them with the gravitas and grace he brings to the post-presidency JQA, as well as to his brilliant and chilly father, President John Adams, and JQA's plain-spoken political rival Henry Clay. (Hissom as Clay faces off against Robinson as the presidential JQA; in the next scene, Hissom is JQA and Robinson is his successor, Andrew Jackson.)

The 90-minute play jumps into scenes of JQA's life from 1776, when he was 9 years old, to 1847, when he was 80. Correa is JQA the child and, later, the frustrated young lawyer, Robinson the diplomat and president, Hissom the congressman dealing with unthinkable personal loss, and Kay the elder statesman greeting the rising leaders Abraham Lincoln (Correa) and Frederick Douglass (Robinson).

The enveloping Kogod Cradle is the perfect setting for this imaginative chamber drama. Meghan Raham's set design consists primarily of chairs, a large carved table that represents the Adams dining room or the Oval Office, and small makeup tables for the performers and racks to hold unworn costumes.

Arena Stage
March 1 - April 14, 2019
Written and directed by Aaron Posner
JQA/Louisa Adams/Abraham Lincoln: Jacqueline Correa
JQA/John Adams/Henry Clay: Eric Hissom
JQA/George Washington/Abigail Adams/Louisa Adams: Phyllis Kay
JQA/Andrew Jackson/Frederick Douglass: Joshua David Robinson
Citizens: Jordan Lee, Jake Owen
Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 6th St. SW
Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or