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Who Blinked in ‘62?

Theater recreates missile crisis on stage.

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Cast from left to right: John Tweel as Robert Kennedy, Brian Razzino as Andrei Gromyko, John Townsend as John Kennedy and Kim-Scott Miller as Nikita Khrushchev.

Anyone who was old enough in 1962 to be aware of the possibility of nuclear war still remembers the way the whole world held its breath as John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev struggled with the issue of Soviet missiles in Cuba. It may seem like ancient history to people under the age of around fifty-five, but it remains burned in the memories of their elders, just as the memories of September 11, 2001 are indelible for today's generations.

That is why the current offering of the American Century Theater is so compelling. It is a docudrama of the first order, a quality piece of theater that, at the same time, is a way to recapture the emotions of a moment now long past and to examine events that determined the futures of so many millions.

Jon Townson plays a youthful John Kennedy opposite Kim-Scott Miller, whose more senior Khrushchev is a revelation. So many people know so much about JFK (or at least think they do) that he's a familiar quantity even now, half a century after his rise to political prominence. Khrushchev, on the other hand, is a distant memory. For most, the image of him banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations may be all that is known of the man besides the fact that he was the Soviet leader during the tense days of October, 1962.

Miller provides a fully fleshed-out portrait of Khrushchev as a committed communist whose faith in his cause and the strength of his homeland is admirable. It is a remarkable piece of acting, turning a cartoonish memory into an understandable person.

The play presents some of the people surrounding the principals as well. John Tweel captures Robert Kennedy's ability to make a serious point with a flippant comment ,and, together with Townson, gives a fine rendition of the rapport between the brothers. Brian Razzino is less successful turning Khrushchev's advisor and sounding board, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, into something more than a functionary but the script doesn't give him a lot to work with.

It falls to the fifth member of the cast, William Aitken, to portray all the others on both sides of the struggle. On the U.S. side, he is Adlai Stevenson, who delivered the famous "I am prepared to wait until hell freezes over for an answer" speech at the United Nations, and Air Force General Curtis LeMay, whose faith in the use of air power to prosecute policy was clearly belligerent. On the other side of the stage where Khrushchev's office is located, he's Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin and Marshal Malinovsky. In all roles, he takes full advantage of the opportunity to deliver sharp lines in striking situations.

Playwright Robert M. McElwaine built this tense drama on the public record, the many memoirs and histories that have been published and personal interviews with many who were party to the events. He has crafted a chronological play that takes the events one step at a time from the first time Khrushchev and Kennedy met, which was before Kennedy was elected President, right on through the moment when the two -- in the famous quote attributed to Secretary of State Dean Rusk -- went "eyeball to eyeball" and "the other guy blinked." (A superfluous final scene captures the reaction of Khrushchev to the news of the assassination of President Kennedy a mere 13 months after their confrontation.)

The production has a no-nonsense, substantial feel to it under the efficient direction of Jack Marshal. It is an opportunity for some to revisit the emotions of forty-five years ago and for others to grasp in human terms a vivid moment in Cold War history.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.</i>