Martha Mitchell went out of her way to scandalize the staid Washington social scene with her iconoclastic behavior during the Nixon years. Her sobriety and her credibility were both in doubt when she began making late night phone calls to reporters revealing secrets she'd learned about Watergate by eavesdropping on phone calls to her husband John, then Richard Nixon's reelection campaign manager. Her sobriety was indeed questionable. Her credibility was not.
“Martha Mitchell Calling” a play by Jodi Rothe
Central Square Theater (photo of entrance shown below)
450 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA 02139
Wed -Sun October 16 - November 9
One act, approximately 90 minutes
Whether this play rings the bell for you or not, one of the best reasons to take in “Martha Mitchell Calling” is to see the spanking new Central Square Theater. The new home of the Nora Theater Company and Underground Theater Company is at 450 Massachusetts Avenue, a five-minute walk from the middle of Central Square. The steep seating arrangement created by opening up the first and second levels of the building offers good sight lines with comfy seats. There is one literal downside: the view from the top row is a bit like sitting on a step ladder at your dinner table, but heck, the prices are right and there’s inexpensive parking at the nearby Green Street Garage.
Martha Mitchell was the southern belle wife of John Mitchell, Richard Nixon’s Attorney General during his first administration (1968-1972). The superbly organized Mitchell resigned in 1972 to manage Nixon’s successful reelection campaign. Mitchell was implicated in the bungled break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex in 1972.
The ‘belle’ part of Martha’s persona applies best to the way she had phone lines jangling as she defended her husband or excoriated President Nixon for lying to the public in late night phone calls to Washington reporters. Put a temperamentally loose cannon and a quart of Tanqueray together and you have a pretty good idea of Martha Mitchell. She may have flunked a sobriety test before she began declaiming but she was also one of the only people who saw that the king was wearing no clothes - and said so in public. Very public.
The play is set in December, 1974, with Martha recounting her formative years into a tape recorder for the memoirs she’s about to publish. The set, in which Martha wanders around as if a prisoner on an island, is a king sized bed with matching pink everything.
Hair coifed, looking regal in her flowing pink nightgown, Martha is never far from her pink Princess telephone and a tinkling tumbler full of something that animates her to make late night calls to Helen Thomas, then the influential queen bee of the presidential press corps.
Eavesdropping on phone calls to her husband, Martha becomes privy to the perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice that would be revealed to the nation two years later.
This photo courtesy of Nora Theater
The play cycles between Martha in her recording mode, her direct monologues to the audience, and cleverly staged conversations with her husband John. For the entirety of the 90-minute play, John sits behind a large picture frame in the rear corner of Martha’s pink bedroom set and strides out when Martha calls on him to relive portions of their lives.
Timothy Sawyer as John is impressive in his resemblance and manner to the original. His transition from playful, amorous husband to a bitter and divorced man is painful to watch. Love simply couldn’t overcome his loyalty to his president and his wife’s escalating notoriety and alcoholism.
“Martha Mitchell Calling” is part history lesson part cautionary tale. Playwright Jodi Rothe’s invention of having Martha comparing herself to Shakespeare’s Calpurnia and the prophet Cassandra may be far fetched but resonates with similarities. The two classic women were both truth-tellers and bad things happened to their country and their men when they were disregarded. We’ll never know whether Martha’s message would have been taken seriously is she’d been less of a whacko.
The play works best when Martha and George perform together. For all the cute Southernisms that Annette Miller deploys, she doesn’t get to the quick of her misunderstood and often ridiculed character. Miller’s characterization of Martha rarely exceeds that of eccentric southern belle, who enjoyed tweaking Pat Nixon and behaving outrageously at Washington social soirees.
After a while we hunger to witness a nuanced portrayal of the anguish Mitchell must have felt when her husband John stood behind Nixon in spite of what he knew. The show drags from time to time during Martha’s solo stretches. Her occasional impressions of mimicking the voices and facial expressions of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are exquisite brief detours.
One suspects there was much more emotional pain that went along with her deliberate off-the-wall behavior in Washington social circles and the late night calls to Helen Thomas, then the influential queen bee of the presidential press corps.
Viewers under a certain age don’t know who Martha Mitchell was. But they do know that from time to time, voices of truth still come out of unsuspected places in Washington. Now, as then, it’s our job to know which is which.