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Talkative: Miller as Mitchell.

An Honest Woman

By James Yeara

Martha Mitchell Calling

By Jodi Rothe, directed by Daniela Varon

Stageworks/Hudson, through Sept. 9

The last stage picture says it all. As a voice-over news report from May 31, 1976, announces Martha Mitchell’s death, scenes from her funeral flash on the upstage wall, framed as a large 1970s television set. Then a clip of David Frost’s 1977 Richard Nixon interview plays upstage, and, as he scowls on, Nixon states, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.” Meanwhile, Martha Mitchell (Annette Miller) stands downstage, her face more aglow from her radiant smile than from the beam of white light bathing her.

Martha Mitchell Calling is a superb, 90-minute, two-actor play recounting Martha Mit chell’s life and her central role in uncovering the Watergate scandal that ousted one of the most corrupt regimes to ever occupy the White House. This production, a reprise of last summer’s from Shakespeare & Company with the same lead actress and director, transfers well to the more intimate acting space at Stageworks/Hudson, where Miller, as the wife of dishonored former attorney general John Mitchell, fills the stage with Martha Mitchell’s energy, honesty, wit, courage, and earthiness.

Martha Mitchell Calling is fluid in its use of time. Playwright Jodi Rothe begins on Dec. 18, 1974 (as the upstage TV screen informs), but when Martha Mitchell bursts onto the stage like a pink honeybee in her deep pink chiffon peignoir and matching satin negligee (costume by Shakespeare and Company veteran Govane Lohbauer), she floats across time. In the ornate bedroom of her 5th Avenue apartment (the expressive set by Denise Massman contrasts perfectly with Martha’s pink mania), complete with silver duvet on the raked bed, matching nightstands, two telephones (one a black phone and one a “pink princess phone”), a full-length mirror up-left of the bed, and an empty gilt picture frame up-right, Martha Mitchell spills out her life story, centering on her husband’s testimony before the Senate. Directly addressing the audience, speaking on her pink phone, shouting at the TV clips, recording her autobiography on a tape recorder (one of many smart touches in the play), or talking with her husband John Mitchell (Richard G. Rodgers) standing in the gilt frame (yet another nice touch), Miller’s Mitchell is all talk and action. She’s an aerobic exercise for the ears, whirling back to her teen years in Arkansas—she tells us her yearbook photo is inscribed with the ditty “I love its gentle warble/I love its gentle flow/I love to wind my tongue up/And I love to let it go”—to how her second husband John got mixed up with “Tricky Dicky.”

Martha Mitchell Calling is full of surprises, the most striking being the passionate love between John and Martha. Their bawdy foreplay—who’d have thought that arch-Republicans played “hide the penny”?—serves as an earthy conduit to reveal a deep love that makes John Mitchell’s pronouncement at his 1975 sentencing—“It could have been worse; I could have been sentenced to spend the rest of my life with Martha”—heartbreaking. Miller is like an erudite Gypsy Rose Lee, exposing Martha Mitchell veil by veil right down to her matching pink tap pants. Through Mitchell’s phone calls to reporters like Helen Thomas, her tape recordings, her impersonations—she does a mean Henry Kissinger—playwright Rothe draws parallels between Cassandra (Trojan prophetess), Calpurnia (Julius Caesar’s dreaming wife), and Martha Mitchell, so that when Martha cries to Gerald Ford that “women have important things to say, and it’s about time men listen to them before it’s too late,” we understand. The parallels with the Nixon administration and the current administration are clear.

Near the play’s end, CBS reporter Eric Sevareid says from the TV screen upstage, “The men of this administration have forgotten that one person in possession of the truth and willing to talk can bring the whole show to an end.” What’s missing today is a woman of Martha Mitchell’s integrity, but her last line in Martha Mitchell Calling is one of hope: “And the truth came out; it always does eventually.” Stageworks/Hudson is to be lauded for bringing this timely play for another look.

 


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