First, for the record, Ronald Reagan lied.
In late October 1980, candidate Reagan and his campaign sent a letter to Robert E. Poli, then the president of the air traffic controllers’ union, pledging staunch support to that union—PATCO—and its fight against what Reagan himself called “unreasonable hours with obsolete equipment.” Reagan called this an issue of “public safety,” took a swipe at the Carter administration’s failure to “act responsibly,” and vowed to “take whatever steps are necessary” to improve the conditions in which controllers performed that most nerve-wracking of jobs: ensuring airplanes don’t crash.
A year later, those controllers went on strike, and President Reagan—elected with PATCO’s support, a rare union endorsement of a Republican—gave all 13,000 of them 48 hours to go back to their jobs. Two days after that, he shitcanned the 11,345 who didn’t.
John S. Anastasi’s haphazard melodrama I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan opens in between Reagan’s ultimatum and the firings. With optimistic bustle, controller Ray (P.J. Benjamin) assures his wife, Jane (Patricia Richardson), and co-worker Buzz (Robert Emmet Lunney) that Reagan won’t go through with it, that the union must stick together, that after the strike the raises will come and the hours will be humane. Soon, he promises, Jane will get to remodel that drab kitchen.
It’s an appealing scene, alive with history and the momentous decision-making of real people, especially as Buzz can’t quite bring himself to promise that he won’t give in to Reagan’s demand—that he won’t become a scab. But it’s also tinged with the rot that will eat through much of the rest of the show: Anastasi’s disinterest in the specifics of how life is actually lived, seen here in bring-the-audience-up-to-speed dialogue that makes it sound as if this is the first time any of these characters have ever discussed the strike or the president.
Most of the show is set in 2004, in the weeks and months following Reagan’s death. Ray, who continued to strike, is now broke and broken, his wife bringing in the money and his knees shot from 20 years of doing construction work he wasn’t suited for. The kitchen cabinets, we see, have not been made over. Buzz, meanwhile, is doing well, with a big house, a government pension, and a son who’s now a hotshot labor lawyer—that last one probably has something to do with the kid’s guilt over how Buzz, who went scab, provided for him.
Ray detests Buzz almost as much as Ray detests Reagan, which is considerable, even cartoonish. (During one shouting match, Benjamin, usually a powerful blusterer, sinks from tired Willy Loman-isms into the positively Fred Flintstonian.) Ray has spent some time institutionalized—in the “rubber room,” as he puts it—and still succumbs to depression and fantasy. His hobbies: watching Jodie Foster movies on VHS, which has something to do with loving the actress because she inspired John Hinckley’s assassination attempt, and then sneaking into the attic to pretend he’s still an air traffic controller. Up there, Ray straps on a headset and talks down imaginary airplanes, much to the bewilderment of Jane (Richardson aces her put-upon slow-burn) and daughter Tess (Danielle Faitelson).
“I loved being a controller!” he shouts at Jane. “Well, start controlling your own life!” she hollers back. Other than the question of whether Jane might get fed up and leave, the drama here is mostly inside Ray’s head, which explains the projection of LED-like dials and radar displays when he’s roleplaying in the attic—he believes he’s still working his job from 23 years before. It’s a painfully literal depiction of his longing for the old days, of his wish to matter, once again, in this world. The play would not feel significantly more ridiculous if Ray sat on the roof with a Fisher Price Busy Box, barking commands at traffic on the street.
This characterization is so over-the-top it would take a tower full of controllers to help guide it down to Earth. The mostly strong production design contributes one unfortunate flourish: a collage of newspapers, Reagan photos, and even a still from The Accused taped up in the attic, exactly like the work of a bad movie’s serial killer. Breaking down in front of his art project, Ray makes a dark confession that might have been potent if he still seemed like a real man: “I prayed for a crash,” he says, speaking of the dark days in the early ’80s when a skeleton staff of scabs controlled the nation’s airspace. That bleak idea—that he would wish for the disaster he prided himself on preventing—bristles with a painful power that the show itself only matches in its occasional vintage news clips: real controllers, on real picket lines, standing on the edge of the real world.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that, for much of my childhood, a copy of that letter Reagan sent Poli hung by the door to my family’s Kansas garage. My father was one of those 11,345 fired controllers. I could not be prouder of his steadfastness in the face of that threat, or more thankful for the life he still managed to provide us. I can’t recommend he see the play.