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New play about Ronald Reagan premiering in Santa Barbara goes beyond politics to look at the man

Actgor Paul Messenger (seated) plays Ronald Reagan in Ronald Reagan Saves The World. It was written by playwright Terry Phillips (standing).
Actor Paul Messenger (seated) plays Ronald Reagan in Ronald Reagan Saves The World. It was written by playwright Terry Phillips (standing).

Despite its title, Ronald Reagan Saves The World focuses on his love for his wife, and country.

He was a huge figure in modern world history. Much has been said, and written about our 40th President. But, a new play world premiering in Santa Barbara this week is looking at a different side of Ronald Reagan. It’s not about Reagan’s politics. It’s about who he was as a man.

"It's a one-man show. It takes place during one evening, in the Oval Office. It is the recollections of America's 40th President from his childhood, through his early career, all the way through his presidency, and in some ways beyond," said Terry Phillips, who wrote the play.

It's called Ronald Reagan Saves The World. He admits the title can be a little deceiving.

"This is not strictly speaking a political play. This is a biography, and it's a love story," said Phillips. "It's about a man who is deeply in love with his wife, (a man) who is a decent human being."

Phillips points out that during his lifetime, Reagan was both a Democratic and a Republican. He calls Reagan the last bipartisan President. The playwright said during his presidency, Reagan would get into a battle with Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the day, and than at night they would get together, and have a beer, knowing they had both tried to do what was best for the country.

Actor Paul Messenger has taken on the daunting task of playing President Reagan in the one-man play. He admits he initially said no to doing the play.

"I was not a Reagan supporter back in the day. It took me three or four weeks to open the script. The title scared me away. I didn't want it to be a homage to Reagan, to put him on a pedestal, and to say he saved the world," he said.

Messenger said when he read the script, he realized the story was really about a man who cared deeply for his wife, and his country. He agreed to do it. The actor admits he still disagrees with Reagan's politics, but admires him as a man.

The play has been in the works since 2018, but was derailed by the pandemic.

They wanted to premiere it in Santa Barbara because of the Reagans ties to the community. The President’s Western White House was in the Santa Ynez Mountains, northwest of Santa Barbara. He and Nancy Reagan would spend weeks at their ranch, which was called Rancho Del Cielo. The Reagans final resting place is also in the Tri-Counties, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

Phillips said like him or not, President Reagan was part of a political era we’ve seemed to have lost. Philips said there was civility between leaders, and instead of putting a political party first, it was about reaching compromises which put the country first.

Messenger said he doesn’t try to imitate Reagan, he tries to capture his flavor, like the way he spoke. And, they also try to reflect the President’s famous humor, as in this part of the play

Ronald Reagan Saves The World has a preview on Thursday night, and its world premiere Friday night, at the Center Stage Theater, in Santa Barbara’s Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center. It runs through September 10.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.