DEFCON 2 at City Lit: The tension rises in “Thirteen Days”

By Karen Topham; photo courtesy of City Lit

Sometimes, stunt casting falls flat, feeling like…a stunt. But other times, as in the case of the truly wonderful all-female Thirteen Days, the tense pandemic-interrupted story of President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This original adaptation by Brian Pastor (who also directs), like City Lit’s pre-COVID all-female JB, never feels like a stunt at all. It feels consistently like the dangerous true story that it is, and these actors manage to keep the tension up to DEFCON 2 (which was actually reached in October 1962 for the only time in history).

Though Robert Kennedy’s book (and historical fact) show that the committee guiding the President was comprised of all white males, Pastor’s cast (multi-ethnic in addition to all-female) feels completely genuine. Led by Cameron Feagin (as JFK) and Kat Evans (as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who also provides narration), the eleven women in this group, guided by Pastor, keep the audience riveted for the entire 95 minutes of the play. Even though, of course, we already know how it plays out, somehow that outcome feels in doubt.

Much of the credit belongs to Feagin. Her portrayal of Kennedy is a sensitive portrait of a confident man who finds himself on the edge. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev has placed potentially nuclear missiles throughout Cuba and, with little preamble, the US is thrust into a game of “who will blink first?” with its worst enemy. Trying to keep his head while surrounded by advisors who vehemently disagree on strategy, Feagin’s Kennedy is a study in crisis management. He doesn’t know the right course of action, but he is able to listen calmly to the at times contradictory ideas from his committee and see clearly where each solution would carry us. In addition to Khrushchev’s gamesmanship and the obvious frustration he feels, Kennedy bears the unacknowledged extra burden of youth; he can’t allow this horrific situation to make him appear weak to his more experienced compatriots. Feagin walks this line brilliantly. The one time her JFK blows up, it is due to someone blatantly missing an assignment at a time when every single mistake could mean catastrophe.

Her sidebars with Evans’ Bobby are as telling as her depiction of Kennedy as a leader who is receptive to all ideas but decisive when he needs to be. In these quieter moments, the brothers allow all facades to drop and we can see the weight of responsibility on the President and the youthful anxiety of his younger brother. Pastor allows these scenes to take it slow, even holding moments in silence: this is a powerful, unprecedented event, and these youthful leaders know the terrifying stakes.

The rest of the ensemble is equally up to the task, especially Sheila Willis, Julia Kessler, and Maggie Cain, as well as Anne Wrider’s great take on Adlai Stevenson. Jeremy Hollis’s no-nonsense set design and Liz Cooper’s lighting (sharp in the committee scenes, softer in the sidebars) enhance the tension that the characters feel and that the audience gets caught up in. At no time does this play feel like a history lesson; rather, to this writer, at a time when (again) the world is in jeopardy in too many ways, it feels far too real and frightening…and immediate.

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