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Outrageous and courageous, she's a natural for the stage

The theatrical Martha Mitchell gets her due in a new play

Long before there was ``Desperate Housewives, " the nation thrilled to an even more outrageous series. Call it ``Desperate Cabinet Wife. "

The star was Martha Mitchell . She was the wife of Richard Nixon's first attorney general, the famously tight lipped John Mitchell , a key figure in the Watergate scandal. Martha was famously loose-lipped, and her flamboyant outspokenness -- on everything from the Vietnam War to Supreme Court nominations to Nixon's criminality -- made her a quasi-folk hero in the early '70s.

On Tuesday , the world-premiere production of Jodi Rothe's play, ``Martha Mitchell Calling," begins previews at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. It's paired on a double bill with Normi Noel's ``No Background Music, " a one-woman performance based on an Army nurse's experiences during the Vietnam War.

In ``Martha Mitchell Calling," Annette Miller plays the title character, and John Windsor-Cunningham plays her husband.

Mitchell became famous for her indiscreet phone calls to reporters. So it seemed fitting that an interview with Miller should be conducted by phone. Whether she would have been indiscreet we'll never know, since Rothe and the production's director, Daniela Varon , joined Miller in a conference call.

``I always liked her," Miller said of Mitchell, recalling how she'd followed news accounts of Mitchell during her loose-cannon heyday. ``She was fun. She liked an audience. She was a little bit of an actress."

Mitchell was a real person playing a part -- or parts (Southern belle, Washington doyenne, political insider, clown). So it's appropriate that Miller should take on Mitchell as a role. She has considerable experience of the opposite situation: playing parts that were real people.

In addition to Mitchell, Miller has played Golda Meir (in William Gibson's ``Golda's Balcony" ), fashion high priestess Diana Vreeland (in Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's ``Full Gallop" ), and acting coach Lee Strasberg's wife , Paula (in Robert Brustein's ``Nobody Dies on Friday "). Miller's performance as Meir with Shakespeare & Company won her a 2003 Elliot Norton Award .

``It's great," Miller said of playing flesh-and-blood characters. ``These were great people, and I feel blessed to be able to actually create them. It's one thing to take them off the page, but to take them out of life and do that, that's really something."

Mitchell's life had a fairy-tale quality -- a fairy tale gone bad. Born in Pine Bluffs, Ark., in 1918 , she went to Washington, D.C., to work as a secretary during World War II. She married and moved to Rye, N.Y. After divorcing her first husband, she married Mitchell, a leading Wall Street lawyer. Moving to Washington, she simultaneously came into her own and started to unravel. Eventually she and Mitchell separated. She was 57 when she died of a rare form of bone cancer, in 1976 .

Rothe said she got the idea to put Mitchell onstage a few years ago, when she came across a 1975 book called ``Dateline: White House," by political correspondent Helen Thomas . In it, Thomas devotes an admiring chapter to Mitchell.

``I had thought she was this wacky woman," Rothe said of Mitchell. ``This was a completely different person. I started doing research and found this amazing story of how in love she was with her husband -- that she was very smart, and funny, and, yes, outrageous."

Mitchell's innate theatricality -- right down to having a trademark prop, a pink Princess telephone -- makes her a natural for the stage. Her personality has elements of Blanche DuBois , Regina Giddens (from Lillian Hellman's ``The Little Foxes" ), and even Winnie (from Samuel Beckett's ``Happy Days" ).

In the play, Mitchell compares herself to two other famous stage characters: the prophetess Cassandra and Caesar's wife, Calpurnia . Like them, she did not flinch from speaking the truth to power.

``Telling the truth is an ideal we're all drawn to," director Varon says, ``but it's easy to forget the cost of it. She paid, and paid deeply. She lost everything: her status, the man she loved, her daughter wouldn't speak to her, her son. She really paid for this telling the truth. On the one hand I admire that, on the other it's a cautionary tale."

The cautionary tale is as much national as personal. ``I couldn't help but read this play and think, `My God, if someone could tell the truth now,' " Miller said, referring to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

``She's really a wonderfully colorful truth-teller. We sometimes think of truth-tellers as being very serious people, on a mission. This woman, it wasn't her mission. She was a player, she loved being a player. She loved the spotlight. The thing is that she loved the truth. Let's put it this way. It was hard for her when she heard the truth to contain it. She couldn't lie. She was one of those people who spoke what she felt -- words went straight from her heart to her mouth. She just told it like it was. And, yes, there was a part of her that really enjoyed the spotlight. She loved the fact she was such a celebrity."

How to square someone being such an idealist and a publicity hound?

Miller paused and assumed the Southern drawl she's perfecting for her performance. ``How can you be charming and irritating, honey chile? But that's Martha."

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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