This fall marks the 35th anniversary of the fabled break-in at a Washington, DC, hotel on the Potomac known as The Watergate. The success of “Nixon/Frost” on Broadway suggests America is keen to revisit this debacle. Among the monochromatic sourpusses in ill-fitting suits that comprised Nixon’s stooges—H. R. Halderman, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, and Jeb Magruder—Martha Mitchell was a burst of color, a larger-than-life player in the drama that eventually brought down a president. A wealthy daughter of Arkansas tradition, Mitchell was married to Attorney General John Mitchell, a New York lawyer and Democrat who she wooed over to the Grand Old Party. How she coped with the scandal as it metastasized is the subject of “Martha Mitchell Calling,” to be performed this month by Stageworks in Hudson.
A mint julep with a sprig of hemlock, Martha Beall Mitchell was known for her coruscating gift of gab. But her unbridled Southern charm barely camouflaged a sly intelligence that was neither expected nor tolerated in Washington wives. When her husband was accused of a major role in the crime, this Cassandra in a party dress began calling Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein—often in the middle of the night and while deep in her cups—to proclaim his innocence. (Woodward and Bernstein had reported on the $250,000 worth of hush money Mitchell had authorized for the Watergate “plumbers” in the Washington Post.)
The two-character play, a blend of political drama and comedy, had its debut in 2006 at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Annette Miller, who created the title role, returns for this engagement as the mouth who roared.
Daniela Varon, who directed the original staging and will helm the Stageworks production, recalled when playwright Jodi Rothe first brought her the script. Varon, born in the late sixties, had only a vague memory of Mitchell as an alcoholic blabbermouth. But Rothe’s play, which draws from documented conversations and leavens the text with speculative dialogue, “sees her as a patriot who really loved her country,” Varon says.
Today, the life and deeds of Mitchell radiate a renewed relevance. “We’re in a time for whistleblowers and a time where we need people who tell the truth,” Varon says.
“Martha Mitchell Calling” encompasses a number of lively, funny, and increasingly frantic telephone calls made from her bedroom, warnings about Watergate that most initially ignored. Archival footage projected onto the set walls complete the history lesson.
Martha Mitchell’s loyalty to husband John came to naught; the attorney general left his wife a year later, and then began serving a prison term in 1975. In 1976, abandoned by both husband and children, Martha would succumb to bone cancer. However, in addition to the Watergate convictions, she enjoys another posthumous vindication; modern psychologists speak of the Martha Mitchell effect: A person is mistakenly diagnosed as delusional because he or she trumpets facts that seem implausible but are later proved true.
“Martha Mitchell Calling” by Jodi Rothe runs from August 22 through September 9 at Stageworks/Hudson. (518) 822-9667; www.stageworkshudson.org.