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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Martha Mitchell Calling /No Background Music

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. ----CBS reporter Eric Severeid
I want that sentence put on my tombstone. ---Martha Mitchell

Once, for a while, I had a four octave singing range. It was a gift -- nothing I had anything to do with. It’s gone now. I left it somewhere in Vietnam ---Penny Rock.
Cranwell Resort

Annette Miller as Martha Mitchell
Annette Miller as Martha Mitchell (Photo: Kevin Sprague )
No Wharton One-Acts this season of making the Founders Theatre do quadruple duty. Like the other contemporary play in the schedule, Enchanted April, this double bill also alternates with two Shakespeare plays. Both Martha Mitchell Calling by Jodi Rothe and No Background Music by Normi Noel focus on two women who lived through the Vietnam War period.

Noel's 30-minute long piece is a timely and moving reminder of the lingering horror of war (as if we needed one at a time when history is once again repeating itself). However, it was probably more effective in its original format as a radio play and is now essentially a script in hand curtain raiser that happens to be presented after the main event. As luck, a snappy script and a made to order leading lady would have it, that main event is substantial enough not to need an afterword. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that there was probably no other slot for giving Noel an opportunity to present her adaptation of Vietnam War nurse Penny Rothe's journal, audiences would probably be happy to have things begin and end with the Rothe play.

While Martha Mitchell Calling is very much Annette Miller's show piece, the presence of John Windosr-Cunningham as the former US Attorney General John N. Mitchell adds a good deal of enjoyment and makes for a more rounded drama than if Rothe had opted for the omnipresent monologue structure. In case you need a refresher about Martha Mitchell's claim to fame, she was both kooky Southern belle and smart as the perennial fox, a limelight lover but also a passionate truth teller, a loving wife who refused to play the smiling, uncontroversial political helpmeet This contradictory mix made Martha's colorful if it's on your lung it's on your tongue personality more fascinating to the public than her tight-lipped husband or his boss, Richard M. Nixon. Her much quoted pronouncements were even collected in a book called On With the Wind: Martha Mitchell Speaks.

Listening to Annette Miller's pink bon bon of a Martha drawling away on her pink Princess telephone, eavesdropping on her husband's private black phone at the other side of the double bed of her Fifth Avenue apartment and making a start on dictating her memoir for a ghost writer makes for a fascinating and funny 90 minute replay of the Watergate scandal. Martha's outspokenness spelled trouble for everyone connected to the disastrous events that led to Nixon's resignation and her husband's political downfall. Her marriage to the sober-faced, buttoned-up Mitchell also makes for a fascinating and unlikely grand passion with a tragic ending worthy of an opera.

While Golda Meir (of Golda's Balcony, which also premiered at Shakespeare & Company and starred Miller) would have had little in common with Martha Mitchell, both are the sort of larger than life women Annette Miller enjoys portraying. She obviously loves being Martha and she nails every facet of Martha's passion for glamour, for notoriety, for John Mitchell -- and for truthfulness. No wonder that long time Washington reporter Helen Thomas devoted a whole chapter of her 1975 book Dateline: White House to revealing the smart woman beneath the ditzy Martha exterior.

Daniela Varon has given Rothe's smartly written script an astute staging, with a solid assist from the design team. Scenic designer Cameron Anderson has transformed the long stage into a satiny cotton candy world that matches Martha's sheer peignoir and is dominated by the big double bed and a portrait of John Mitchell -- but wait, that large frame next to the bed is not a canvas image but the flesh and blood John Windsor-Cunningham who occasionally steps out of that frame to have his say and interact with his darling (and eventually discarded) girl. As Miller is much more attractive than Martha ever was, so Windsor-Cunningham is a rather good-looking John Mitchell. Yet, like his co-star, he evokes the overall persona of his character. The pink satin wall also serves as a "screen" for the black and white projections of the Mitchells' glory days, his trial, Nixon's resignation, various Watergate "plumbers." These images and the accompanying voiceovers by Shakespeare & Company members ground Martha's story in reality.

At a time when Americans are trying to make sense of a war that began with lies and has resulted in missteps that have come to light despite continuing cover-up efforts, this is a good time to revisit Martha Mitchell's brief fling as a folkloric whistle blower. A still in development biopic based on another (and not especially successful) play abour Mitchell, John Jeeter's one-person Dirty Tricks (rumor has it that Meryl Streep will be Martha Mitchell; Jill Clayburgh, Pat Nixon; Gwyneth Paltrow, Maureen Dean and Annette Bening, Helen Thomas) should give this peppy, easy to mount two-hander a boost on the regional theater circuit -- especially if Miller is part of the package.

Normi Noel
Normi Noel (Photo: Kevin Sprague)
While I think Martha Mitchell Calling has the legs to enjoy a life beyond its Lenox run, I'm less optimistic about No Background Music -- at least as a play. That's because, it is, as I already mentioned, worthy in terms of content but not really stageworthy. With the stage still draped in flamboyant pink satin, it's almost incongruous to listen to Normi Noel's heartbreaking excerpts from the journal of Penny Rock who wanted to be a singer and not a nurse but who lost her four octave range amid all the blood and dying.

Noel's aptly understated reading unfortunately comes off as bland and depressing after the flamboyantly entertaining performance and much more full-bodied play preceding it. The material is strong and Noel has adapted it with warmth and cohesiveness, but it belongs on the radio or in print rather than on stage.

Martha Mitchell Calling
By Jodi Rothe
Directed by Daniela Varon
Cast: Annette Miller as the title character, and John Windsor-Cunningham as John Mitchell

No Background Music
Created from the true stories of Penny Rock, Army Nurse
Written and Performed By Normi Noel
Directed by Virginia Ness Ray Set Design: Cameron Anderson
Costume Design: Govane Lohbauer
Lighting Designer: Daniel Kotlowitz
Sound Design: Josh Liebert
Video Projection Design (Martha Mitchell Calling): Larry Horowitz,
Shakespeare & Company, Founders' Theatre, Kemble Street, Lenox, MASS
August 1 to September 2, 2006
Performances at 10:30 am 3:00 pm 8:00 pm, see for dates.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on August 4th press opening

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