First Ladies on Stage

Elaine Bromka ’72 brings her one-woman show,

by Cheryl Dellecese

Elaine Bromka as Betty Ford

Elaine Bromka ’72 as Betty Ford.

Elaine Bromka ’72 likes being in charge. The veteran actress has appeared in a slew of television’s most popular shows, such as The Sopranos, each series in the Law and Order franchise, and Sex and the City, where she played the gynecologist, who breaks the news to Miranda Hobbs that one of her ovaries is “lazy.” Bromka also played the anxious mother in the 1989 John Hughes film Uncle Buck, starring John Candy and Macaulay Culkin, and she has appeared on Broadway.

But what really excites Bromka is performing her one-woman show, Lady Bird, Pat, and Betty: Tea for Three, which she co-wrote. “I’ve gone all over the country doing it,” she says. “I really enjoy bringing the story of these three women to people.”

In 2002, Bromka took on the roles of eight first ladies in impersonator Rich Little’s PBS production The Presidents. The show was written from the point of view of the presidents Little portrayed, but Bromka became interested in exploring the first ladies’ perspective.

In collaboration with playwright Eric Weinberger, Bromka wrote Lady Bird, Pat, and Betty: Tea for Three, which was first performed at the Berkshires’ Chester Theatre Company in the summer of 2004.

The show has been a commercial and critical success. Olin Meadows, who reviewed the play for the website Austin on Stage wrote, “Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford—three drastically different women with one thing in common: the White House. In the one-woman show Tea for Three, Elaine Bromka does an amazing—and breathtaking—job of creating believable and yet unbelievable impersonations of each of these iconic women.”

Bromka, who is celebrating her 40th Reunion in May, will treat alumnae on campus for All Reunion Weekend to a performance of Tea for Three on Friday, May 25, at 8:30 p.m. at the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts.

Here Bromka talks about the play, touring in a one-woman show, and what she’s learned about the first ladies and herself along the way.

You originally played eight first ladies in The Presidents. How did you settle on three for Tea for Three?

It was my co-playwright Eric Weinberger’s idea to bring it down to Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon, and Betty Ford, because they were of an age that I could play for a while, and they were so different from one another. He also suggested portraying the first ladies at the end of their time at the White House, because it was such a time of transition, soul searching, and reminiscing and looking forward to the next chapter. As we wrote, it started to fit together like a crossword puzzle.

How did you research the roles?

I read Lady Bird’s diary, Julie Nixon Eisenhower ’69’s biography of her mother, and Betty Ford’s two autobiographies, among other sources. I also spent a lot of time in the Museum of Television and Radio. I have always been a huge believer in nonverbal communication, and I needed to study them visually as I listened to them. It was there that I really got their cadences and body language.

Were there any surprises in your research?

All three first ladies experienced the death of one or both parents at a very young age. When Lady Bird was 5 years old, she lost her mother. Betty was 16 when her father died; Pat lost her mother at age 13 and then her father at 17. It struck me that such loss might make you feel that you are basically alone in the world, but I think that is the kind of personality you need to survive in the job of first lady, because it’s terribly lonely.

Which first lady do you enjoy playing most?

People often ask me that, but I really don’t have a favorite!

What is it like to perform a one-woman show?

I love it! Sometimes people will say to me, “You don’t have anyone to play off,” and I say, “The audience is the other character.” I address the audience directly, so the audience changes me drastically.

How has performing the show changed you?

It is very empowering, instead of just being an actor for hire. I still do other projects and enjoy them, but performing in my own show, there’s no need for a filter. As an actor and a storyteller, I can come to an audience and say, “I have a story I want to share.”

What do you hope your audience comes away with?

It’s always up to the individual as to what one comes away with, but I believe in theater that is funny but also moving. I want it to be redemptive. I am partial to uplifting theater. I weave the history in, and a lot of the lines are in their own words, but I still feel it’s less an historical document than a psychological study.

How do you feel about coming back to campus and performing Tea for Three for your classmates?

It will be so much fun, because this is the ideal audience. They’re going to get it! And I find the smarter the audience is, the richer the experience for all of us because they kick back to me.

Cheryl Dellecese is associate director, print and new media, College Relations