Anderson, Indiana

Johnstone shines in AU production of "Give 'em Hell, Harry"

Thu, 2012-04-19 10:02 -- univcomm
April 19, 2012

With a stocky and sturdy build, Ronn Johnstone doesn’t immediately resemble a common perception of Harry S. Truman as short and grandfatherly.

But once Johnstone, who is director of theater at Anderson University, begins to quote Truman in a one-man stage show, he fully envelops the persona of the 33rd president.

johnstoneGive 'em Hell, Harry is a strong, touching interpretation of Samuel Gallu’s hit play from 1975. The show became a national in-theater film release with actor James Whitmore portraying Truman. Truman, of course, succeeded to the presidency with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt and served as the nation’s leader from 1945 to 1953. He died in 1972.

[Give 'em Hell Harry opens Thursday in Anderson University's Byrum Hall. Performances will run April 19-21 and 26-28 at 7:30 p.m., with matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. on April 28 and 29. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and military, and $5 for students. For tickets or inquiries, contact Beth Doub at or (765) 641-4351.]

Johnstone has long wanted to play Truman. But Harry, which takes place as a series of reflections, requires an actor to have physical resemblances to Truman; previously, Johnstone was just too young. As he reached 50, Johnstone felt the time was right for his looks, expertise and, perhaps, comprehension of Truman to take on the feisty, headstrong role.

Johnstone turns Harry into a personal experience for himself and the audience. For example, a recurring, emotional challenge is Truman’s acceptance of his role as the only man to approve the dropping of atomic bombs which in turn forced Japan’s World War II surrender. Johnstone’s reflections are deeply moving — pausing mid-thought to capture the inhumanity of atomic weapons while noting that his action had to be taken to save the lives of American soldiers. As an undertone to the tragic nature of war, the play shifts to happier moments of Truman’s home life whenever the bomb is mentioned.

Stage lighting, running from warm to chilly, by Christian McKinney and sparse set design by Kathleen Warner complement Johnstone’s performance as does the pinstripe suit, suspenders and wire-rim glasses by costumer Cameron Bourquein.

Harry is not solely for those who remember Truman, or for war veterans, as one might expect. There are deep comparisons between Truman of the 1940s and today’s Washington, D.C. Truman was faced with the anti-communism tirades of Joseph McCarthy, attacks on social security, and issues of American drilling for oil — themes that never seem to be resolved in this country.

Thankfully, Ronn Johnstone waited years to “Give ’em Hell, Harry.” His range as an actor rolls naturally to encompass Truman as statesman and family man. But Johnstone’s years also enhance the honesty and directness that defined Harry Truman for one generation and continue to be relevant today.

— Scott L. Miley is features editor for The Herald Bulletin. Story reposted with permission. Performance information added by AU. Photo credit: Scott L. Miley/The Herald Bulletin.

Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,600 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson University continues to be recognized as one of America's top colleges by U.S. News and World Report, The Princeton Review, and Forbes. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing, and theology.