A one-man show with assistance from voice-over actors, period photos, and news recordings from the 1960s will offer a stirring remembrance of a beloved president in the last days of his life.
John F. Kennedy, America’s 35th president, was reflecting on the challenges of the past on Nov. 21, 1963, as he dictated a speech about the experiences that he and his brother Joseph Jr. faced during World War II. “We in this country are, by destiny rather than choice, the watchmen on the walls of world freedom,” Kennedy said in one section of the talk.
It was a speech he was preparing for a visit to Dallas the next day, a speech he would never get to make.
JFK historian and reenactor Mike Lowe of Braintree will share it with audiences in “Lieutenants Kennedy,” his original multimedia theatrical production that he will perform eight times over two weekends, starting next Thursday, at Laura’s Center for the Arts, at the South Shore YMCA’s Emilson Branch in Hanover.
Lowe, who has mimicked the late president’s voice and speech patterns since childhood, has prepared four nonfiction “JFK Experience” shows drawn from his extensive research in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum archives, books on Kennedy, and other sources, and incorporating professional voice-overs and compelling historical recordings.
“Lieutenants Kennedy” begins with the president seated at his desk in the White House preparing to dictate his speech. Later we hear the voice of a Marine saying JFK’s escort is “ready to take you to Andrews Air Base” for the flight to Texas.
Lowe’s performance ends with some lines from the actual speech, including the words: “My friends and fellow citizens . . . America today is stronger than ever before.”
The feedback from the venues where Lowe has performed his shows suggests audiences have been captivated by the peformance.
The audience was “hanging on every word that you delivered,” Thomas Daly, curator of education for the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, wrote to Lowe after a performance at the museum. “You brought Kennedy back to life for some and animated a figure in history for others.”
Lowe said his fascination with the voice and personality of the late president started shortly after his assassination, when his mother gave him a record album of some of Kennedy’s best speeches.
“I began to recite and repeat the words of the late president, doing my best to imitate the president’s voice,” Lowe recalled recently. “Being from Boston, I had an affinity for his famous Boston accent. I wanted people to hear Jack’s story. I wanted them to hear Jack’s voice.”
Some 50 years later, Lowe is still reciting JFK’s words and researching his life and times. He formed JFK Experience, and six years ago began performing shows — based on thousands of hours of research — for historical societies, museums, and professional groups as well as theater audiences.
He also wanted audiences to hear the voices, and learn the stories, of other figures in Kennedy’s past, such as the other men aboard the PT-109 who helped one another survive after their small attack boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Given up as lost by witnesses who saw the boat explode and break in half, 11 crew members did survive. Once they were rescued and John Kennedy was decorated for heroism, Joe Jr. was eager to earn an equal or better reputation.
“No one wanted to get into close combat with the enemy more than Joe,” Lowe said. Driven in part by sibling rivalry, bomber pilot Joe Kennedy flew and survived 35 missions over German territory, and then volunteered for a second tour of duty. He was flying a B-24 Liberator overloaded with bombs intended for the launching pads of the enemy’s V1 rockets when the plane exploded, killing all aboard.
With his other shows focusing on JFK and civil rights, Kennedy’s childhood, and the PT-109 story, Lowe hired actors to provide voice-overs for the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rose Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and many and others.
Visuals and news recordings add to the verisimilitude. In the civil rights story, for instance, you hear a voice-over from a participant in the Birmingham Freedom March and see an image of a dog attacking the marchers.
Voice actors for the JFK Experience shows include Jerry Goodwin, who portrays Joseph Kennedy Sr., Phyllis Gordon as Rose Kennedy, and Paul Held as brother Joe. Lowe, a history lover who works for the Massachusetts State Lottery and doesn’t have professional theatrical training, says the shows benefit from these “talented people,” who “speak several languages and can perform Shakespeare.”
He also He also cites the contributions of his director, Annie Kerins.
As publicist Colleen Cimini saidpoints out: “Ask anyone old enough to remember, and they’ll tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.”
For all those too young to play the “where were you” game, Lowe’s evocation of the facts and the spirit of JFK’s time is a vivid history lesson.