CAMBRIDGE - If the title "Martha Mitchell Calling" doesn't instantly evoke the image of a big blond beehive attached to a pink Princess phone, you need to head over to the Central Square Theater for a valuable education. And if it does evoke that image, you'd better head over anyway - not just to learn more about the woman under the hair, but to experience a passionate, hilarious, and ultimately heartbreaking evening in her company.
Jodi Rothe's play about Mitchell, the loquacious wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell, made its debut at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and has since been staged in New York and Florida. Now Annette Miller, who created the role of Martha, brings her astonishingly fierce, bawdy, and committed portrayal to the new stage of the Nora Theatre Company, a troupe with which she's had a long and fruitful association. If only the marriage of Martha and John Mitchell had produced so happy a result.
One surprise in Rothe's play, though, is the intimate glimpses it affords of that marriage between a flirtatious Southern belle and a jowly, sobersided New York lawyer. You wouldn't believe it to look at old photos of him - or old footage from outside the courtroom where he stood trial for his role in Watergate, footage that's appropriately deployed here in Larry Horowitz's video projections of period images - but John Mitchell was apparently, at least in the beginning, madly in love with his wife and capable of both passion and playfulness in her company.
Their relationship brings a human dimension to the political backdrop of Watergate - and, in its ultimate deterioration and cruelty, a human embodiment of the destructive legacy of that scandal. Watergate was at once Martha Mitchell's reason for fame - she grew notorious for phoning reporters with juicy bits of inside information - and the cause of her destruction, with Nixon's White House smearing her as a deluded, alcoholic crackpot.
As UPI's longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas put it, Martha Mitchell was ultimately a "victim of the political war of Watergate, and one of its very few heroines."
Thomas is just one of the contemporary sources whom Rothe quotes in her canny and tightly constructed script. Nixon himself makes an appearance on the video screen, with his notable (if sinfully belated) acknowledgment to David Frost: "If it hadn't been for Martha, there'd have been no Watergate." Henry Kissinger shows up, too, in Miller's devastating imitation, and John Mitchell, given initial charm that's later twisted by vindictive power-mania in Timothy Sawyer's portrayal, periodically steps out from his gilt-framed "portrait" to talk with Martha and with us.
Mostly, though, and most memorably, the voice we hear is Martha's. She dictates her memoirs to a tape recorder, chats with friends and reporters on that pink phone, yells at the TV screen - and, through it all, confides in the audience with humor, wicked insight, and real pain. Miller works through every emotional register with authenticity, creating a fully rounded, irresistibly engaging, and flawed human being.
The Nora's production gives Martha the same pink peignoir, the same pink phone, and the same billowy backdrop of pink drapery as the Shakespeare & Company version in 2006. Because of the steeply raked seats in the Central Square black box, however, the audience's relationship with Martha feels subtly but distinctly different. In Lenox, we were practically eye-to-eye with her; here, except for the very front row, we're looking down on her.
And, as Rothe's fine play and Miller's powerful performance make abundantly clear, looking down on Martha Mitchell is something you just shouldn't do.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.