Cassandra Speaks by Norman Plotkin. Directed by Nicole Ricciardi.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Tod Randolph; photo: Kevin Sprague
Dorothy Thompson, ca. 1943
"I’ll write about fashion instead."
Fact One: Journalist Dorothy Thompson ended her long and illustrious career in newspaper and broadcast reportage writing about women’s issues: gardening, the wisdom of believing in fairy tales, the disciplining of children, the importance of loving animals, the necessity of voting. What preceded those years with the Ladies Home Journal was a sparkling, witty, no-survivors look at the political world and its high-voltage times in which she lived. The first American writer, a woman, to interview Adolph Hitler she was also the first reporter officially expelled from Germany in the 1930's during the dictator’s meteoric rise to power. She was a force to be reckoned with and always on her own terms.
Fact Two: Tod Randolph - and I believe I have said this at least three times before in print - has never been better on stage than she is right now in this new play. Randolph plays Thompson on the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre Stage at Lenox, Massachusetts’ Shakespeare and Company through the summer. She has never looked better, sounded better, been more brilliantly defined in a character, nor played with more conviction and heart (this on a night when no air-conditioning existed in the theater and the one-act, one-woman play allowed no opportunity to correct this oversight - how Randolph could act this exacting part in the growing heat, under heavy lights and in a formal gown with tight-to-the-armpit sleeves without sweating I will never understand. Must be pure brilliance at work.).
Fact Three: Whether speaking about the woman’s career, her personal life with three husbands and a son, her time in Europe, her uneasy friendship with Edna St. Vincent Millay, her mad relationship with husband Number Two - Sinclair Lewis or her long professional and personal affair with honesty as her partner this play draws such a real picture of the woman that it does seem as though we are eaves-dropping on her in her home on a special and fraught day.
In fact, Fact Four, the only flaw in this one-woman show is the awful conceit that we have all sequestered ourselves inside her study in her house on her wedding day. The author needed to have Thompson speak her thoughts out loud and so she confesses the best and worst of her life experience to us, her acknowledged, unexpected guest. It almost doesn’t work, but luckily the moment of discomfort passes and we’re not really ever referred to again in the work. But it is uncomfortable and, on the part of the author seems a bit too convenient.
Factually this play does its job well and so does the director, Nicole Ricciardi, who has not only handled the physical Thompson well in all aspects including her vocal presentation but has worked within the strict structure of the one-person play to present through Randolph’s amazing talents a whole host of personalities. One of the most delicious sequences comes in the telephone conversation between Thompson and her ex-husband Sinclair "Hal" Lewis. For most of the play all movement on the stage has been deliberate, chosen, necessary and exactly right, but in this section Ricciardi has given vent to the emotional content of the relationship by having Thompson roam and ramble and remotely opt for spaces that have no part in her conversation or her presentation of facts. She is a woman with Lewis, even on the telephone, and Ricciardi gives the actress room to expand on this concept in a physical way that is almost cathartic, almost erotic.
The technical elements of the show are perfect. A set, so perfect it might be out of a Hollywood movie set in 1943, designed by Patrick Brennan is the elegant frame for the play and for Randolph’s character. A dress for a "third" wedding designed by Kara D. Midlam converts the slightly matronly Randolph into the somewhat elegant wife and mother that is mid-century Thompson. Stephen Ball’s beautiful lighting design allows us to fall, with the character, into memories of times past and incidents related and he is given excellent aural aid in this by Michael Pfeiffer’s rather memorable sound design. Pfeiffer pulls off audio tricks that attack the senses and drag the audience directly into the play, instantly into Thompson’s space where she discovers us. He uses a period recording of Ethel Waters in a full stage sound dissolving into an onstage radio as the device and as it transforms the stage’s world, it also transforms the audience into the uninvited, but not unappreciated, guest.
One person plays are not my favorites, but this piece, in the hands of all the artists combined, makes a commanding appearance. Dorothy Thompson was no Dorothy Parker; she could write and move you with her word pictures but she was neither a wit, nor a sexual scoundrel. She represents that other part of her era where behavior was not the end-all and be-all of a person’s life. Honesty, imagination and awareness were usually the tools of men; they were Thompson's tools as well and she is best remembered for them and for her way of making a statement as a result of having such tools to use in her work.
Tod Randolph wakes us to the reality of Thompson’s place in our current way of life, even though Thompson has been gone since 1961. She is the personification of a journalist who needs a moment to marry herself to a perfect happiness that she openly confesses she will never know. Lucky for us her performance makes that our chore; we are perfectly happy to accept the challenge from a woman who has never been better, but which one - Randolph or Thompson?
Cassandra Speaks plays through September 2 in repertoire with other plays in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, MA. For information and tickets call 413-637-3353.