On being First Lady

Elaine Bromka is Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be First Lady? Emmy Award–winning actress Elaine Bromka has.

In “Tea for Three,” Bromka plays three successive first ladies who served in the years following President John F. Kennedy’s death through the Vietnam War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Watergate, Roe v. Wade and the Equal Rights Amendment. The play, by Eric H. Weinberger with Bromka, explores the lives of Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford at the moment just before they are about to pass the baton to a new First Lady.

Set in the White House in the years 1968, 1974 and 1976, the play is made up of fictional monologues by each of the women based on their lives. Footage of their husbands’ last televised national addresses as president, projected on a large screen, precedes each woman’s monologue.

Bromka has quite a lot of experience playing first ladies, having starred as eight of them in PBS’s “The Presidents” series. Perhaps her most poignant portrayal “In Tea for Three” is that of Pat Nixon, who suffered emotional estrangement from her husband during his presidency and found the weight of the Watergate scandal almost too much to bear. Bromka embodies the nervousness and fragility of the woman, whose isolation is nearly complete by the time she’s about to leave the White House. Bromka’s performance conveys the restlessness of a caged animal. For Pat, the White House became something of a prison, we learn.

The comedic side bursts forth in the monologue of Betty Ford, whose colorful, adventurous, liberal and social life is evident in her carefree personality. Parties are her forte, and drinking and pill-popping help ease the tensions that come with the demands of her role. Betty isn’t afraid to speak her mind either.

Lady Bird comes across as the most stable of the three. Hers is the generation of women who stand by their men and firmly know their place in life. She doesn’t have the same dissatisfaction with her lot in life that Pat Nixon seems to develop during her time in the White House.

Bromka moves with ease in playing three very different women whose roles in life as the wives of powerful, political bigwigs intersect. The play can be read on many levels — as the evolution of the First Lady role to the varying perspectives each woman from a different part of the country brings with them to Washington.

It’s a deeply moving story that will have you reviewing the history books. “Tea for Three” will make you think about, and feel for, woman everywhere.

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