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A triple threat: Acclaimed actress and Smith College alumna Elaine Bromka plays three roles in “Tea for Three”

  • Elaine Bromka portrays Pat Nixon, who once called the role of first lady “the hardest unpaid job in the world.” courtesy of Elaine Bromka

  • As Lady Bird Johnson, Bromka tells the audience, “As I told my girls, this need for women to have their own identity belongs to their generation, not mine.” courtesy of Elaine Bromka

  • Bromka channels the outspoken and somewhat unconventional Betty Ford. Courtesy of Elaine Bromka

  • Elaine Bromka, a 1972 graduate of Smith College, has been touring her one-woman play, “Tea for Three,” since 2004. courtesy of Elaine Bromka


Staff Writer 
Wednesday, November 02, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

One had to follow in the wake of national icon Jackie Kennedy. Another had to watch her husband’s presidency and legacy go down in disgrace. A third had to deal with breast cancer — though she used her national platform to raise awareness of this important health issue for women.

If there’s one particular theme that’s animated Elaine Bromka in her one-woman play over the years, it’s her profound sympathy for the position of first lady. What must it be like to live your life in a fishbowl? And what exactly is entailed in what Pat Nixon memorably called “the hardest unpaid job in the world”?

Bromka, a veteran actor who’s also a Smith College graduate, has been exploring those issues since 2004 in “Tea for Three: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty,” in which she portrays Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Betty Ford. It’s a show that might have particular resonance this year, she notes, given the ugliness of the presidential race.

“There’s been so much mudslinging, and [the play] is just the opposite of that,” Bromka said during a recent phone call from her home in northern New Jersey. “It’s not about politics — it’s really about the human element of people who get swept up in that.”

“Tea for Three,” 80 minutes long, with two brief pauses between its three acts, will be staged at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield Monday and Tuesday, at 7 p.m.

Bromka, a native of Rochester, New York, joked that seeing the production on Election Day is an ideal way to spend the day.

“You can vote, see the play, then go home and watch the election results.”

That said, she stressed that the play is designed to “reach across the [political] aisles” and give audience members a feel for “walking in the shoes” of the three first ladies in question, with scenes that reflect joy, pain and humor, as all three prepare to receive their successors as the White House changes hands.

A varied career 

Bromka, a 1972 graduate of Smith, has had a long career in television and theater, with an occasional foray into film (she played John Candy’s disgusted sister-in-law in the 1989 comedy “Uncle Buck”). Her many TV credits include appearances on shows such as “Law and Order,” “ER,” and “The Sopranos,” and her stage work — on and off Broadway and in regional theaters nationwide — includes “Macbeth,” “Shirley Valentine,” and “I’m Not Rappaport.” 

The inspiration for “Tea for Three” came in 2000 when she played eight modern first ladies, from Jackie Kennedy to Hillary Clinton, alongside comedian Rich Little, who portrayed the corresponding commanders in chief in the PBS production “The Presidents.”

“I had never thought that much about the subject, and I didn’t know a lot about [the first ladies],” she said. “I went and I crammed, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became with them. Their stories weren’t well known.”

And, Bromka said, “I kept thinking, ‘What would it feel like if your husband told you he was running for president, or had become president?’ ”

Bromka wanted to develop her own play examining the lives of some of these first ladies with a bit more depth. She struggled with how to write it, though, until she was introduced to playwright Eric Weinberger, who suggested she focus on Johnson, Nixon and Ford — both to make the play manageable and because those three were less well known.

Weinberger, the play’s primary author, also felt moving from Lady Bird Johnson to Betty Ford would neatly encapsulate the growth of the women’s movement during that period — late 1963 to early 1977 — given that Johnson saw her most important role as advancing her husband’s career, while Ford was an outspoken supporter of women’s issues, including passing the Equal Rights Amendment. 

“Tea for Three,” which debuted in 2004, got its final touches when Byam Stevens, former artistic director for the Chester Theatre Company, came on as director. One of the play’s earliest performances took place that year in Chester.

“Byam did such a wonderful job — he really brought everything into focus,” Bromka said.

Relied on research

Though some of the dialogue and scenes in “Tea for Three” have evolved over the years, Bromka says the play’s foundation still rests on the initial research she did on Johnson, Nixon and Ford: studying old videotape of them from TV interviews and speeches, reading magazine articles (and a memoir by Ford), examining Johnson’s diary.

Looking at the old TV images was particularly important, said Bromka, to learn how the women moved, held themselves, spoke and gestured. “I don’t try to impersonate them, but there are certain details that are really important.”

Betty Ford, for example, tended to tilt her head up a lot because of neck pain; Pat Nixon, when in an uncomfortable situation such as confronting as an aggressive press corps, would “kind of dip her knees and back away,” Bromka said. “She’d still have a smile on her face, but that little dip of her knees was a telltale sign.”

In a show that she feels is all about empathizing with her characters, Bromka says she has a particular soft spot for Pat Nixon, who had a tough upbringing — she was orphaned at 17 and worked multiple jobs to put herself through college — and was an intensely private person. Some in the media derided her as “Plastic Pat” because she always wore a smile in public.

“She was tough to get a handle on because she was so private and she didn’t give speeches,” Bromka said. Yet from her research, Bromka added, she learned Nixon was among the friendliest first ladies to White House visitors.

In one sequence when she plays Nixon, Bromka tightens her face and says, “My dad taught me to hold your emotions in. … Only two times I’ve cried in public, and both times I hated myself for it. Two times: at my mother’s funeral, and when Dick conceded to Kennedy.”

Betty Ford comes across as more of a wisecracker. With Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, about to take over the White House in January 1977, Bromka, as Ford, sarcastically says she “can’t wait” for Rosalynn Carter to come for tea and a tour of the famous building.

“No, she seems like a nice person,” Bromka adds with a laugh. “But I want to give her a tour of the White House like I want to jump off the Washington Monument. We lost — we gotta get outa here, so let’s go already.”

There are other more poignant moments as well, as Bromka, affecting the modest southern drawl of Lady Bird Johnson, explains to the audience that she has no regrets about putting her interests second to her husband’s career.

“As I told my girls, this need for women to have their own identity belongs to their generation, not mine,” she says.

Bromka says the one-on-one relationship with her audience is one of the highlights of her play— one that long ago took away any butterflies about getting up on stage by herself.

“They’re kind of the other character in the play, the one the first ladies are speaking to,” she said. “They’re very much part of the show.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For tickets and additional information about the Nov. 7 and 8 performances of “Tea for Three” at the Majestic Theater, visit majestictheater.com.

To see a short video of “Tea for Three,” visit www.teaforthree.com.