The three women portrayed by Elaine Bromka in Tea for Three — Claudia A. T. Johnson (a.k.a. “Lady Bird”), Thelma C. R. “Pat” Nixon, and Elizabeth A. B. W. “Betty” Ford became first ladies during the a turbulent period of profound historical significance. All of them started as “second ladies” while their husbands shed blood, sweat and tears in obscurity as Vice President. Likewise, all them became wives of presidents under a shadow of national tragedy. Ms. Johnson watched her predecessor, covered in her husband’s blood, stand in front of the television cameras saying defiantly that she wanted the world to see what it had done to a great man. Ms. Nixon became first lady twenty-two years after Richard Nixon lost the White House to Kennedy and Vietnam broke LBJ. And Ms. Ford, who became first lady when her predecessor’s husband was forced from office in disgrace, served as first lady for a mere 896 days.
The script, written by Ms. Bromka and Eric Weinberger, draws important parallels between the three women. Though they were not the last of the “greatest generation” to be first ladies (Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were also of that era) Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon were both born in 1912 (Betty Ford was born six years later), and all three of them suffered both through the early loss of parents and the Great Depression. All three of them worked to support themselves — and their husbands’ political careers — before such work was recognized for its own merits. They were “leaning in” long, long before it was cool.
Collectively their lives portray a dramatic chapter in our nation’s history, and Ms. Bromka treats her subjects with profound and subtle compassion. Ms. Bromka’s tripartite metamorphosis (with the attendant linguistic transformations) is beguiling to watch. From Southern drawl to flat Californian speech to the broad midwestern accent of central Michigan, each lady is painted in lifelike colors. Wig designer Robert E. McLaughlin deserves special praise for recreating each woman’s distinctive coiffure. It’s an ingenius, almost subliminal addition that secures the illusion Ms. Bromka creates with her voice and mannerisms.
From the perspective of the shallow end of 21st century feminism, these three women’s stories may read as a study in futility. Why would Lady Bird devote her life so completely to her husband when she could have been independently wealthy? Why did Pat Nixon refuse to become a public personality in her own right, as Hillary Clinton and Michele Obama have done? Why did Betty Ford, who was clearly a free spirit, confine herself in the strictures of a monogamous, patriarchal marriage to a man remembered mostly for being a hapless buffoon? Though many women argue that the feminist movement is far from complete, the strong spell that powerful men used to cast over intelligent women seems like a fairy tale from a mythical age. (Huma Abedin, wife of disgraced pol Anthony Weiner, is far more like her mentor, Hilary Clinton, than she is like Lady Bird Johnson.) But Ms. Bromka’s play is a necessary historical corrective for this callow misreading of women’s history and human nature. Though they are not thought of as feminists, the contribution of these women to the uniquely American, feminist struggle for personal realization should not be underestimated.
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