Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
This is a high quality, educational two-character play that playwright/actress Anne Undeland has been working on for three years. She wrote the script (originally in monologue format and subsequently expanded) and plays Jennie Jerome, mother of Winston Churchill. Undeland is based in the Berkshires where she has oftentimes performed. Mark Zeisler, the versatile Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, small and large screen actor takes on a variety of demanding roles which require and receive enviable dexterity. It is a play which is sometimes lively, sometimes tense. Jim Frangione, veteran actor, director and playwright, directs the 90 minute production. He, too, has been aboard for multiple readings, changes, and developmental phases. While the actors, obviously, propel the piece from page to stage, Frangione's important ability to effectively move the pair around links many moments.
Jennie Jerome is from Brooklyn and by 1875, she was married to Lord Randolph Churchill. Winston Churchill was their newborn baby. Jennie sought to fulfill her needs, bodily and otherwise. She was strong but, it seems, not the ideal mother for Winston when he was young. Winston did not have an easy time of it at school and also developed a stutter. Jennie was a person of strength and she definitely sought and found a life outside of the metaphorical box of convention. In fact, Randolph has his own problems, which pushed his wife further toward exploration and, really, the edge of danger. Jennie was not sexually inhibitedquite the opposite. To say more would ruin much of the theatergoer's experience.
It is mentioned early on that Jennie is one of three sisters, and her father (played by Zeisler) is a prominent figure. Then, the bulk of the action shifts to the dysfunctional marriage between Jennie and Randolph and its ramifications. Visually, designer Juliana Von Haubrich stays clear of overload. There are heavy brown tables and, upon occasion, an important prop is lowered from the ceiling. If the look is spare, it is also most appropriatenot in any way a negative. Lianne Arnold's helpful projections accurately depict time and place.
The first scene leads to a flashback of the entire story until conclusion and the loop then becomes complete. The initial sequence demands pinpoint timing which the actors provide. Even so, it takes a bit to fully comprehend just what is transpiring at the outset.
Playwright Undeland spent much time researching before and as she wrote. Some of the words are historically true, while she has written much original dialogue based upon her findings and imagination. The blending works exceptionally fluently.
Undeland, acting, is adept and winning in her role as the audacious and sometimes exuberant Jennie. The performer never misses a beat. That said, this production benefits, even more so, from Zeisler's bravura turns. During one instance, he flips, every few seconds, from a British to American accent and does so flawlessly. The role demands poise, precision and understanding of several characters. Zeisler is enormously disciplined.
Jennie Jerome was quick-witted and bright. Additionally, she was not about to lose herself amid a relationship that was suffocating and unhealthy. Thus, she addresses her needs and refuses constriction. She came of age during the 19th century and she refused the role of suffering wife. Playwright and actress Undeland delves into the core of this woman's zest and ambition. Zeisler seamlessly moves from one persona to the next. His is a commanding but never overwhelming performance.
WAM Theatre's Lady Randy, through May 5, 2019, at the Bernstein Theatre, Shakespeare & Company campus, 70 Kemble St, Lenox, MA. For tickets, visit www.WAMTheatre.com or call the Shakespeare & Company box office at 413-637-3353.