Jim Lehrer’s New Play Launches NatGeo’s First Foray Into Theater Production

“Bell” opened Thursday night and runs for ten performances.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Even the playwright, veteran broadcast journalist Jim Lehrer, admits he learned a lot about his subject, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, while creating the 90-minute piece that launches NatGeo’s first ever theater production as part of National Geographic Live. The one-act, one-man play, called simply Bell, stars DC actor Rick Foucheux, and opened Thursday night with a packed house and a crowded after-party.

Everyone knows, of course, that Bell invented the telephone, and that is addressed in the play, but it also mentions other interesting pieces of his life that caught our attention, including:

• Bell’s role in treating President James Garfield after he was shot in an assassination attempt, and his frustration when doctors would not properly use a metal detector he invented, which could have found the bullet. Infection set in, and Garfield declined and eventually succumbed. “He died a painful death after being shot at the Washington train station,” Bell says in the play. “Please do not interpret my actions as heroic. I was motivated by wanting to save the life of a president.”

• That at the same time as the Wright Brothers, Bell was creating his own first airplane, and the race to be first was intense. “We inventors of those days were involved in a monumental invention warfare—we all wanted to invent a flying machine.” Later, frustrated by being beaten by the Wright Brothers, Bell laments, “The invention of flight dwarfed what I did with the telephone.”

• A lot of whining about Thomas Edison, who was his rival.

• About himself, Bell reveals he “require[s] only four hours of sleep a night,” and that he’s “driven by the need to find something new, something different.”

At every turn, the play is a revelation and an education as it takes the audience on a journey into a richly productive era in American history. Bell alone was the holder of 47 patents. He also served as president of the National Geographic Society from 1898 to 1903.

This is Lehrer’s third play. He has also written 20 novels, two memoirs, and a nonfiction book about the presidential debates. He has moderated presidential debates in the past. In 2011 he stepped down as the anchor of the PBS Newshour after almost 30 years with the broadcast.

Bell, the first play to be produced on the National Geographic Society stage, runs through Saturday, September 21. The director is Jerry Skidmore. Tickets ($30) can be purchased by phone at 202-857-7700 or online.