Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2006
I am linking this review of the 2006 production at Shakespeare & Company to the 2007 production at Stageworks/Hudson because, with the exception of the actor playing John Mitchell, it is substantially the same production – same leading lady, same director, same designers. Certainly this review will give you a good idea of what you will see at Stageworks.
I came home the other day to find my husband watching a 1999 film called Dick which theorizes that Deep Throat was actually two ditzy teenage girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) hired by Nixon as “official White House dog walkers.” The film ends with the famous video clip of Nixon’s 1974 resignation, to which Dunst’s character responds “It’s over. They can never lie to us again.” When I heard that line I felt very sad.
There is a similar scene in Martha Mitchell Calling, although the 50-something Martha was not naïve enough to believe that the American people will never be lied to again, but she did believe that what she did and said would have a lasting impact on the American political system. It didn’t. It would be just as hard to be Martha Mitchell today as it was in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Martha Beall Mitchell (1918-1976) was what my mother would have called “a big, blowsy woman.” The word blowsy has to do with drinking too much, which Martha certainly did, but it also bespeaks an attitude that is hard to come by in northern climes. Dubbed “The Mouth of the South,” she was born and raised in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas, and educated at Stephens College in Missouri. A southerner through and through, Martha was woefully out of place among the Washington DC elite.
Martha moved to New York state after her first marriage in 1946. But it was love at first sight when she met bonds attorney John Mitchell. Both of them were married to other people at the time, but they shed their ill-suited spouses and married in 1957. Theirs was a great love affair, shattered by politics. John Mitchell’s law firm merged with Richard Nixon’s in 1967. The following year Mitchell became Nixon’s campaign manager, and the year after that he was appointed Attorney General, where he served until 1972 when he resigned to head up the Committee to Re-Elect the President, aka CREEP. Watergate broke, the Mitchells separated in 1973, and three years later Martha was dead from a rare bone disease.
Martha believed in telling the truth and she believed that there was lying, corruption and an elaborate cover-up of the same in the Nixon administration, and she said so, loudly. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, Martha was vilified by the administration and the press, and did a stint in a mental hospital. The Martha Mitchell Effect is now the clinical term for when a belief is mistakenly diagnosed as a delusion by a psychiatrist.
Jodi Rothe’s one-act play Martha Mitchell Calling, currently being presented by Shakspeare & Company with Annette Miller in the title role and John Windsor-Cunningham as John Mitchell, takes place between 1974 and 1976, although many events from earlier times are narrated during the show. The conceit of the show is that Martha is narrating her memoirs into a tape recorder for her ghost writer. Occasionally she interacts with Windsor-Cunningham, who sits for much of the play inside a picture frame posing as his own oil portrait. And of course Martha gets on the phone – her famous pink Princess slim-line. But the Martha Miller is playing is the older Martha – desperate for John’s love and shattered by the way she has been treated by Nixon’s cronies.
Miller has made a mini-career of playing famous (some would say notorious) 20th century women in one- or two-person plays. She was Golda Meier in Golda’s Balcony, Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop, and Lee Strasberg’s wife Paula in Nobody Dies on Friday. She managed a passable physical resemblance to Meier and a striking one to Vreeland, whom she most closely resembles in coloring and figure, but she does not look like Martha Mitchell. Luckily Miller is a fine actress and her performance is commanding and highly entertaining, but I was never fooled into thinking that that was Martha on the stage.
One thing that probably prevented me from fully accepting Miller as Martha, or Windsor-Cunningham as John, are the video projections created by Larry Horowitz of longshot.com depicting the real Martha and John Mitchell in both still and moving pictures. There is not a strong physical resemblance between either performer and their real-life counterpart, and having the real people constantly flashed before you doesn’t allow for that suspension of belief that often takes hold in the theatre, especially under the sway of two such fine performers.
The video projections are also painful reminders of those turbulent times in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the whole world seemed to be spinning out of control. What baffles me is why some people of my Baby Boom generation (I am at the tail end, being born in 1957) learned so much from those harrowing days and others, like our current President, seemed to learn nothing at all. Didn’t we all get the same news from Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Eric Sevareid?
Horowitz has put together an interesting array, but I have to say that I hated the way the images were distorted by set designer Cameron Anderson’s cascading backdrop of fabric. The fabric, which flowed from the top of the Founders’ Theatre all the way down to the edge of the thrust stage, was magnificent looking, but it was far to pleated to do justice to the video used here and the slides projected in the companion piece No Background Music.
People who remember Martha Mitchell tend to remember the propaganda that made her out to be an insane alcoholic. She was painted as the villain and many people still think of her that way. If you are one of those people, Rothe, Miller, and director Daniela Varon are out to change your mind. Rothe’s script paints a very flattering portrait of Martha, but it is always obvious that she was one wacky noodle. She wasn’t dumb, and, in hindsight, she was usually right, but the way she went about delivering her messages was often bizarre and hard to take. And she was a drinker.
Rothe and Varon also have an obvious political agenda, one which makes Martha, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative Republican that she was, a left-wing martyr. That her story plays so well that way is intriguing, but I fear it is just as heavily propagandized as the version we heard from the Nixon administration many years ago. While this play goes a long way towards resurrecting the real Martha Mitchell, it also does her a disservice by placing her actions in such a contemporary context.
That being said, yes, we could certainly use a good “Truth Teller” today. And I can tell you that, as Conservative Republicans go, I would much rather have dinner with Martha Mitchell than Condoleezza Rice. But I hope that our new crop of “Truth Tellers” finds a way less clownish and extreme than Martha’s methods.
Martha Mitchell Calling, on a double bill with “No Background Music” runs in repertory through September 2 in the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs about 90 minutes, followed by an intermission and then the performance of No Background Music. The show is suitable for ages 13 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006