Act II shines a light on three first ladies

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 2/1/24

At Act II Playhouse, you see 20 years of history through the eyes of three First Ladies.

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Act II shines a light on three first ladies


At Act II Playhouse, you see 20 years of history through the eyes of three First Ladies. In "Tea For 3: Lady Bird, Pat & Betty," each woman reviews her life as she prepares to surrender White House living quarters to an incoming First Lady.  

Written by Eric H. Weinberger and Elaine Bromka, the 90-minute show builds on the success of last year's production of "Eleanor." Widely considered the most influential First Lady, actress Penelope Reed created a compelling image of Eleanor Roosevelt. Because of  Roosevelt, the First Lady is now a de-facto office that equally mirrors occupant and politics. 

Barrymore-winning actress Mary Martello dons her director's hat. Thanks to scenic designer Meghan Jones, you easily believe you are in the White House living quarters. Martello uses a light hand with sound (Adam Danoff) and light (James Leitner) that accents the women without being intrusive. 

"Tea For 3" is a one-woman show, and Sabrina Profitt's performance is a tour-de-force. In her hands, each First Lady seems to jump off the stage. Profitt benefits from wig design (Bridget Brennan) and costume (Mary Folino). By show's end, you believe you have come to know these women and their political time. Some core impressions:

Lady Bird, the loyal one

Lady Bird tries to tell a joke but flubs the punch line – something the president would never do. She stays loyal, even when LBJ embarrasses her in public. Her dress makes her look like a "stuffed turkey," he says. He does not hide his sexual affairs. Lady Bird says she tries to learn from these women. 

Maybe that is why she now wears a purple dress that does not quite suit her. She proclaims she is not a "modern" woman: Her husband is her identity. When he first wins election, Lady Bird organizes his congressional office. In 1964 she conducts a whistle-stop campaign in the deep South -- deemed too dangerous for LBJ -- and endures "N-lover" assaults. 

Even on her last White House day, Lady Bird cheerfully answers telephone calls. The last one comes from LBJ. He is distraught about Vietnam, about losing the South, about having to resign. Lights dim as she consoles him. She lowers her voice: “Honey, listen to me.” It is like the way you would talk to a baby. 

Pat, the angry one

From the outset you know she is lying. She wears a plain gray dress; her face is strained. She lights a cigarette, then quickly puts it out, as though to say "Do not give in to indiscipline." She brightens when she recalls how she fields stale reporter questions, how many ways you can restate and inflect the same dumb, cliché answer. 

As a high school honor student, she intentionally lowered her senior year grades to avoid giving the valedictorian speech. Her only White House joy is to answer the 500 letters she receives daily. One is from a 15-year-old boy who says he is lonely and has no friends. She answers them all – no form letters. 

Pat Nixon set a record for First Lady foreign tours, visiting 80 countries and traveling 500,000 miles, an acclaimed goodwill ambassador. But you sense she mostly wanted to get away. Now, on her last day in the White House living quarters, she paces the room in tight circles like a caged animal.   

"Watergate!" she shouts. Who investigated the ransacking of Dick's congressional office? Who investigated Kennedy's voter fraud in Illinois and Texas? Who points out that Dick never made an issue of it because of his love of country?

Betty, the party girl

Betty Ford, too, was a small-town girl. Unlike the other two, she was not a college honor student. Instead, she ran off to New York City. She studied dance under Martha Graham. Returning home, she married a good-looking traveling salesman. Then hubby did what good-looking traveling salesmen usually do. They divorced. 

Now, on her final day at the White House living quarters, Betty lounges in a bathrobe. No tea for this girl. Bourbon in hand, Betty is a congenial truth-teller. When asked about Roe V. Wade, Betty said she liked it. When asked what she would think if her 18-year-old daughter had relations with a boy, she said it would mean her daughter is a normal girl. 

Her popularity rating was a walloping 71 percent. A wee tipsy, Betty struggles to put on her yellow dress, the kind you would take onto the dance floor. She has to meet Rosalynn Carter. As to being First Lady, Betty says: "I loved every minute of it!" She flings open the door and, as though she were talking to a stage queen, she cries out to Rosalynn in the darkness: "You're on!"

"Tea For 3" will run through Feb 18. Act II Playhouse is located in Ambler at 56 E. Butler Ave. Tickets available at 215-654-0200 or online at