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City Lit takes revisits ‘Thirteen Days’ in world-premiere production

The drama is an adaptation of Robert Kennedy’s memoir about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Sheila Willis (from left), Cameron Feagin, Kat Evans, Julia Kessler and Maggie Cain star in “Thirteen Days” at City Lit Theater.
Sheila Willis (from left), Cameron Feagin, Kat Evans, Julia Kessler and Maggie Cain star in “Thirteen Days” at City Lit Theater.
Photo by Steve Graue

It’s back to the past in more ways than one when playwright Brian Pastor’s “Thirteen Days” debuts Sunday night as the season opener at City Lit Theatre.

The world-premiere drama is an adaptation of Robert Kennedy’s memoir about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It also was the play that was in its final preview and about to open in March 2020 when the pandemic shut down the world.

Now, it’s about to make its “return,” opening Sunday with much of the same cast and creative team returning.

“I can’t tell you the relief and excitement I felt when I walked in to the rehearsal room,” Pastor says. “The chemistry and camaraderie and energy instantly came back. It’s excitement mixed with trepidation, but more than anything it’s relief that we can gather once again and tell stories and share them with a live audience.”

Pastor puts his history degree from Northwestern University to good use in “Thirteen Days,” adapted from Kennedy’s account of the time — Oct. 16-28, 1962 — it took to unwind the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which would go down in history as one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War.

Pastor’s previous adaptations at City Lit Theatre have come from literature — Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Tackling a historical narrative was a new challenge.

“With this play, there were a lot more tentacles reaching out in different directions, and you’re trying to just pull everything together to create a streamlined script,” says Pastor, who also directs. “It was an enticing challenge even though it was a steep hill to climb.”

Adding to that and in an all-encompassing nod to gender-blind casting, women will play all of the roles in the City Lit production. The 11-member cast includes Cameron Feagin as President John F. Kennedy, Kat Evans (Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), Sheila Willis (Defense Secretary Robert McNamara), Julia Kessler (Secretary of State Dean Rusk), Anne Wrider (Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) and Kim Fukawa (Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin).

Pastor and City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe obtained permission from RFK’s estate to adapt the memoir and add dialogue gathered from declassified transcripts of the strategy meetings attended by President Kennedy and his cabinet and staff.

What developed over those 13 days was a direct and dangerous confrontation that came close to a nuclear conflict. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, worried about another invasion attempt after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, reached a secret agreement with then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.

“Thirteen Days” looks at the tensions and challenges faced by these world leaders and the tangled political web they had to untangle.

Pastor was intrigued by RFK’s observations in the book, especially one in which he describes — as the song in the musical “Hamilton” says — “the room where it happened.”

“Kennedy writes about how this was a room full of experienced, intelligent, thoughtful men and yet everyday opinions changed sometimes drastically based on new information that was coming in,” Pastor says, “based on the fears of casualties, based on the desire to not make it look like a superpower was backing down from another superpower. That constant confusion back and forth challenged even these very measured experienced men in the room.”

About the all-female cast, Pastor says: “There’s nothing about the situation that required it to be a room full of white men. It’s just that historically those types of rooms were reserved strictly for that privilege. We felt one of the best ways of connecting to a modern audience and modern storytelling was to tell it with a diverse group of women.”

Feagin says being on stage for that last preview, performing a play about a crisis in which society was panicked at the same time a pandemic was threatening society, was “just very, very odd. But now, returning to the play, it feels more grounded. And I can only think it’s because we’ve all been through so much, and what’s important in life got reevaluated.”

It’s an intriguing challenge for the cast members who weren’t born then or are too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pastor was impressed with the time, energy and enthusiasm they put into their own research.

“There’s a vast amount of knowledge that has been brought to the rehearsal room to create lively discussions and an enriched sense of collaboration,” he says. “I’m sure after performances we’re going to have some great talkbacks because of this research.”

Mary Houlihan is a freelance writer.