Review of ‘The Best Man’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Len Clark
Salisbury Post
The St. Thomas Players’ selection of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” is topical, given the current and seemingly everlasting primary and general election campaigns. The play charts the conflict between two candidates vying for their party’s nomination,
One candidate, Bill Russell played by Kurt Corriher, is a highly principled intellectual, but with a few kinks in his armor. His opponent, Senator Joseph Cantwell, played by Shawn Van Wallendael, paints himself as the common man’s candidate, but he’s completely unethical and self-centered.
There’s not much doubt Vidal constructed the character of Russell based on his opinion of himself. He ran for Congress several times and his father and grandfather were both career politicians. Vidal’s 1972 comment: “There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” sums up his abounding confidence in his leadership abilities.
Ironically, when the first production of “The Best Man” was cast in 1960, Vidal turned down Ronald Reagan for the lead role because he didn’t think Reagan could pull off the role of a politician. Gore Vidal will rightfully be remembered for his prolific penmanship rather than his statesmanship.
“The Best Man,” exaggeratedly deemed a classic by its playwright, may have raised a few eyebrows from the uninformed proletariat 50 years ago, but in today’s world of instant access to multi-million dollar slur campaigns, it’s a kindergarten shoving match.
That’s not to say the play is not entertaining. The script is solid and the St. Thomas Players have done an excellent job in casting. Corriher plays Russell perfectly as the sincere, misguided candidate with a few skeletons laid in the cupboard. Van Wallendael is equally strong as the ruthless Joe Cantwell, also harboring a private life he’d rather not have made public. The best scenes with the most chemistry are where the two adversaries go head to head.
A former president ó David Crook ó plays the kingmaker, and Crook’s characterization of a Washington insider/Ole Country Boy is spot on.
Robert Hackett as Russell’s campaign manager looks and acts as though he’s dropped through a time warp from JFK’s White House, another good choice. His opposite number, Cantwell’s manager, is played suitably sleazily by Nick Luisi with another polished performance.
Wives Rebekah Hardison as Alice Russell and Lori Van Wallendael as Mabel Cantwell, also got into their roles promptly. Supported by Sarah Drinkard, Jamison Middlemiss, Bill Barton and Nick Bishop, this play of moral dilemmas, high roads, low roads and egos is entertaining and captivating.
The few stumbles on opening night will surely disappear and the show will go from Good to Better to Best Man very quickly. Jim Esposito appears to have excelled on his first outing as a St. Thomas director. Jennifer Cranford is stage manager.
Performed in the round, audience members are seated on four sides of the theatre, with entrances for the actors at the corners, so don’t be late to vote!
“The Best Man” performances are June 18-21 and June 25-28 at the Florence Busby Corriher Theatre on the campus of Catawba College. Tickets are $10. Call 704-647-0999 for information.