“Never address criticism directly.”

That was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s policy, but in this one case, he’d made an exception.

Good thing that he did, for if he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have Richard Hellesen’s absorbing new play EISENHOWER: THIS PIECE OF GROUND. It’s a solo show that sports a compelling performance by John Rubinstein. 

“Ike,” as he was chummily called, is very infuriated with a New York Times piece that polled 75 learned historians. Out of the 31 presidents that they studied, they ranked Eisenhower in 22nd place.

More galling still to the former president is that the historians concluded that Eisenhower basically (and merely) “left well enough alone.” So he takes to his tape recorder and insists that he did far more than that. When he details the way that he handled issues involving the Korean War, the H-Bomb, NASA, race relations and the Interstate Highway System, you start to see his point.

(Make that: points.)

Those points were enough for Hellesen to write a play that makes us appreciate a man who isn’t much discussed anymore.

Ike will do more than just rebut; he’ll take us through much of his life. We see his sense of purpose early on, when we hear his policy of “choosing the right way, although it may be harder, that the easier way, which may well be wrong.” 

When he says, “We never know what someone will become,” he’s not referring to himself, but the statement certainly applies to him. His life began, as it did for so many presidents, with very humble beginnings. You’ll hear how the struggling Eisenhower, intent on getting into West Point, was at first denied; then, through either a quirk of fate or destiny, his fortunes changed.

Hellesen and Rubinstein detail the horrors of World War II. Perhaps the most telling observation is “Who hates a war more than a soldier who’s lived it?” Rubinstein delivers it with the requisite poignancy. 

Then you’ll smile when you hear the smart yet endearing comment that Ike’s mother made when interviewed about Dwight’s military heroics. As much as Rubinstein enjoys delivering that story, he can garner our sorrow when he tell us that his father didn’t live to see his son achieve his immense success, not even as a General, let alone President. 

There’s much little-known history from the mid-years of the 20th century abounds. A fun story tells us how we might not have ever had a Chicago Daily Tribune headline that stated “Dewey Defeats Truman.” On a more somber note, we learn that when we had a different McCarthy (Joseph R.) affecting the mental health of America, Ike said of the notorious senator from Wisconsin, “I pointed out who was really un-American.” 

And yet, being a rich, famous and powerful individual doesn’t make one immune from a family tragedy. Eisenhower relates the terrible one to which he was victim. Here’s when Rubinstein most effectively switches gears from grievance to grieving. 

Throughout the two acts, Rubinstein is a wonder. No, he doesn’t resemble Eisenhower, but he conveys so much strength and spirit that you’ll probably forget that as the play continues. 

(For that matter, a substantial percentage of The Theatre at St. Clements audience may not even know what Ike looked like.)

Nevertheless, both those who were alive and well during the Eisenhower presidency and those who were yet to be born will be moved when Rubinstein has Eisenhower say of wartime, “I’ve seen a few cities taken in my time” with eyes show that he indeed did. Later, when he quotes an opinion that many believe as incontrovertible fact, he gives out with a bitter laugh that says otherwise.

We never know in a one-person show just how much a director helped, but given that the production is so gripping, let’s assume that Peter Ellenstein gave fine advice that Rubinstein followed. 

Before the play ends, you may well plan to Google in order to see where Dwight D. Eisenhower now ranks among the presidents. With an additional 12 more competitors to contend with since he left office, did he sink even lower?

Here’s one time where you won’t need Google, because projections on the back wall will do it for you.   

Even without any learned opinions from today’s historians, you’ll be convinced that mister, we could use a man like Eisenhower again. We can’t officially vote for him, of course, but many who cast ballots for the annual theatrical awards next year will check off the box next to the names of John Rubinstein and EISENHOWER: THIS PIECE OF GROUND.