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Two voices from the '70s offer insight for our time

LENOX -- It's hard to imagine two women more different than Martha Mitchell and Penny Rock: one the flirtatious, loquacious, outrageous Southern wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell, and the other a subdued, plainspoken Army nurse in Vietnam. So at first it might seem odd to find their two stories joined on a double bill at Shakespeare & Company, ``Martha Mitchell Calling" and ``No Background Music."

By the end, though, you understand just what they have in common. They're women who see horrible things and have the courage to say so. They're angry. They're scared. And their voices are just what we need to hear right now.

In fact, playwright Jodi Rothe has her Martha imagining, back in 1976, that we'd one day be asking, ``Where is Martha now, now that we need her?" To those who remember her only as a briefly famous loudmouth, that might seem extreme. But Rothe makes a powerful case for Martha Mitchell as, in the words she quotes of longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, ``a victim of the political war of Watergate, and one of its few heroines."

For what Martha Mitchell talked so loudly about was Richard Nixon's White House and the crimes it committed and then covered up. Nixon himself later said, ``If it hadn't been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate." At the time, though, she was almost universally dismissed as a drunken crackpot for expressing the lunatic idea that Nixon was a crook who knew about the Watergate burglary all along.

All this is fascinating and worth hearing again, but what really makes it work is Rothe's tight and inventive construction and, especially, Annette Miller's knockout performance as Martha.

Rothe crafts three scenes with Martha, two in the peachy-pink bedroom of her New York apartment and another in the hospital room where she was treated for a fatal cancer. But the play is never claustrophobic. For one thing, Rothe has a gilt-framed ``portrait" of Martha's husband, John (beautifully played by John Windsor-Cunningham), come to life for frequent conversations . Video projections of actual moments from the real Martha's life also open things up.

And, most important, Rothe and Miller create Martha as a huge, irresistible force of nature. In a pile of blond curls and a fluffy pink peignoir, Miller wields Martha's trademark pink princess phone with deadly candor and vim. She's passionate, bawdy, and often hysterically funny. In a little over an hour, she breaks your heart.

Heartbreaking, too, are the stories that Normi Noël has woven together to create ``No Background Music" from the journals, letters, poems, and interviews of Penny Rock. The Army nurse served in Vietnam during one of the war's bloodiest years -- 1967-68 -- but she knows, as all veterans do, that there aren't any years of a war that aren't drenched in blood.

Rock's stories are sometimes almost too painful to bear, but Noël -- who not only wrote the one-woman piece but performs it here -- knows when to give us just enough of a break that we can stand to keep listening. And she keeps the monologue brief, which adds to its condensed and haunting power.

Mostly, we hear stories of the boys who suffered and died on Penny's hospital ward. She tells us a bit about herself -- that she wanted to be an opera singer, that she used to sing to her patients at night, that she used to have a four-octave range but ``left it somewhere in Vietnam" -- but we learn more about her, about her courage and honor and rage, from the simple words she uses to tell us what she knows.

The luxurious drapery that designer Cameron Anderson uses to cover the back wall for Martha Mitchell's apartment stays up, minus the pink-and-gilt furniture, as a backdrop for this piece as well. At first, like the black evening gown and diamonds that Noël wears, it seems incongruous for Penny's tales of missing arms and screaming burn victims.

But ultimately the incongruity works, and not just because Daniel Kotlowitz's skillful lighting transforms Martha's meringue-like curtain to Penny's creeping jungles and muddy rivers. It works because this is a civilized woman, talking to other civilized people in a civilized place, about the completely barbaric and appalling acts that civilized people can commit.

Two very different women; two very different voices. And two stories from the 1970s that feel frighteningly timely now.

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