“Frost/Nixon” offers a ringside seat to an unnerving political boxing match where winner takes all in a power struggle to save face.
Spokane Civic Theatre’s current production, under the direction of Susan Hardie, is an impressive interpretation of Peter Morgan’s 2006 historical drama. The story is based on a series of 1977 interviews by British journalist David Frost with former President Richard Nixon, more specifically the series premiere, the “Watergate Interview,” which is still the most-watched interview in television history.
Wes Deitrick’s likeness to Nixon is notable, from his hunched back and squinting frown to his gruffness and prominent front teeth. And despite all of Nixon’s notoriety, Deitrick portrays him with humor and likability.
During one of his early off-camera conversations with Frost, Nixon ironically proclaims, “I wouldn’t want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they are being taped.” When Frost tells Nixon he’s spent an astounding $2 million on the interviews, Nixon hilariously responds, “Two million dollars! I didn’t know we were making ‘Ben Hur!’ ”
Deitrick’s Nixon is convincing as he dominates earlier interview rounds by bobbing and weaving around Frost’s questions with calculated, digressing rambles, nearly causing an unamused Frost to doze off in his chair.
In his first production with the Civic Theatre, Kelly Hauenstein gives a worthy performance as Frost, who advances from a jovial celebrity lightweight to the one contender who can corner Nixon into admitting some of his wrongdoings.
It is not until the final Watergate interview, when we see Frost use Nixon’s own quotes to probe his obstruction of justice, that the power shifts. In a climactic admission Nixon cries, “I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”
It is at this moment that Nixon and viewers realize that his political career is officially over. He becomes diminutive, shrinking like a deflating balloon before the cameras, and the fight is over.
Commendable performances by supporting cast members include Jon Jordan as the impassioned American author and journalist Jim Reston; Robert Crabb as ABC news producer Bob Zelnick; Brian Cheney as British producer John Blirt; and Terry Sticka as Jack Brennan, Nixon’s post-resignation chief of staff.
Gary Pierce also gives noteworthy performances, first as Nixon’s sly book agent, Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar, and second in his portrayal of Mike Wallace during a brief “60 Minutes” interview with Frost.
The Civic’s design and production teams’ set design aids in evoking the intensity of the play. The use of retro television sets displaying live broadcasts of the interviews, the intimacy of the Studio Theatre space, and the re-creation of a dimly lit living room make the audience feel as if they are witnessing the historic interviews for the first time.