Finding forgiveness: Anastasi’s ‘I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan’ goes Off-Broadway

Take away some of the politics, add in a little more emotion and hopefully that will be the right mix for audiences seeing Dr. John Anastasi’s play that will premiere in New York City next month.

That’s how P.J. Benjamin, who plays the lead in Anastasi’s play, described the latest revisions that the Altoona playwright has made to the play called “I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan.” Benjamin, who’s appeared in many Broadway productions such as “Wicked” and “Chicago,” said he thinks audiences will leave the revised play wanting to discuss it further, which means it struck a chord with them.

“It has less of the historic details, but it’s a much better play because of that, I think,” Benjamin said.

Anastasi, better known to people in the Altoona area as a cardiothoracic – or heart and lung – surgeon, wrote the play based on the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike. The strike ended abruptly when President Ronald Reagan fired the striking controllers.

The play centers on one striker and how his decision affected his entire life and that of his wife, daughter and his best friend. Much of the action occurs about 20 years after the strike ended as the play’s main character, who’s a Vietnam veteran, and his family and friend are still feeling the effects of his decision.

Patricia Richardson, who played wife Jill Taylor in Tim?Allen’s 1990s TV sitcom “Home Improvement,” co-stars with Benjamin. She has not appeared in a Broadway role for several years, but she is looking forward to playing the part, Anastasi said.

Anastasi’s play was produced in Altoona at the Mishler Theatre in 2010. Since then, he has rewritten it, removing some of the political details and beefing up the interplay among the characters, which has added to the emotional impact, Benjamin said.

Rewrites are part of what a playwright should expect, said director Charles Abbott, who is directing the play, debuting July 15 at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on 42nd Street, in what is called Theatre Row.

“Someone once said that plays are not written, they’re rewritten,” said Abbott, who met Benjamin in Chicago when Abbott was directing “Cabaret.” “Anytime you have a play this worthwhile, it will go through a series of workshops and readings.”

Both Abbott and Benjamin had heard earlier versions of the play and said they appreciate the craftsmanship that Anastasi has used to fine-tune this version of the script that audiences will see next month, they said. The play operates on several levels simultaneously, beginning with the political moments brought on by the plot, they said. The focus then moves to deeper levels of conflict between the main character and his wife, his daughter and his best friend, who crossed the picket line.

“There are political moments, but in truth, we have made great attempts to balance that by the end of the play,” Abbott said.

Anastasi got the idea for the play from his own brother-in-law, who was an air traffic controller who did strike, and lost his job. Anastasi said he remembers his brother-in-law agonizing over the decision of whether or not to strike, finally deciding he should because he was working too many long hours with antiquated equipment. He also never thought Reagan would ultimately fire the striking workers, believing that a compromise would eventually be worked out, Anastasi said.

“Basically, he gambled and lost,” he said. “That decision changed his whole life.”

Anastasi said his play should resonate with many people today who’ve lost jobs, who are connected to a labor union, who’ve struggled through a moral dilemma or who’ve ever dealt with complicated personal relationships.

“It’s really a non-partisan play. It doesn’t bash Reagan because it’s not really about him,” Anastasi said. “It’s about how this political decision affected many people, some for the rest of their lives.”

Gwen Arment, who directed the play in Altoona, said she hasn’t read the revised script, but she enjoyed directing the earlier version very much. She said the challenge was to find the balance between the drama and comedy in the play and present it so that it didn’t turn “melodramatic and repetitive.” She also said she tried to “develop, through dialogue, the characters and their relationships, as completely and interestingly as possible within the framework.”

“It is a very good story to tell and one that the younger generations do not know,” she said.