Playwright-actress navigates rich terrain in new play, 'Lady Randy,' at WAM Theatre
LENOX — Lady Randy was a woman to be reckoned with. An American heiress married to Lord Randolph Churchill, the former Jennie Jerome was bold, brilliant and beautiful, unapologetically sexual, and mother to future prime minister Winston.
Her life is captured in the play "Lady Randy," written and performed by Anne Undeland; receiving its world premiere by WAM Theatre beginning 7:30 p.m. Friday evening (press opening is Saturday) at Shakespeare & Company's Bernstein Theatre in Lenox.
At a post-rehearsal interview, longtime actress Undeland joined director Jim Frangione and WAM artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven to discuss her playwriting debut.
Undeland started writing the play in 2017. She had unsuccessfully submitted an earlier short play to Berkshire Playwright Lab's Radius Festival. Invited instead to join BPL's Writers' Group, within a few sessions Undeland had a first draft.
With a long history of diving deep into the psyche of fascinating females, Undeland had portrayed compelling 19th century women including actress Fanny Kemble and poet Emily Dickinson in five solo shows at Ventfort Hall.
In Jerome, she found an equally enticing story. Facts about her life "fit the category of, `you can't make this stuff up'," she said.
One of the first "dollar princesses" who married impoverished British aristocrats, Jerome had close Berkshire County ties: Her mother was from South Williamstown; her father had family in Stockbridge.
"As a playwright, the conflict is right there," Undeland said. "If you're a woman of passion and intelligence and ambition, 19th century society is going to do everything in its power to make sure you are none of those things. I found that really rich terrain."
Undeland described Jerome as vaultingly ambitious, beautiful and incredibly selfish, "a great mother to her adult children and terrible mother to her young children."
A master at advancing the men in her life — her son Winston inhabits the play from childhood to middle age — she was "completely unashamed" of her many romantic conquests, which included royalty and much younger men.
"A product of her time and also ahead of her time, she took the limitations of her gender and class and made a celebration of it," Undeland said.
While Undeland originally intended to write a one-woman show for herself, Frangione suggested having another actor play characters in Jerome's life.
This opened up "wonderful possibilities and wonderful characters," Undeland said. "And Mark Zeisler is embodying them skillfully and beautifully."
After acting for 25 years, Undeland says her writing has "a visceral quality because I know what is theatrical, a really strong sense of what works on stage."
Frangione, who helped develop BPL's Writers' Group, recognized the play's potential.
"She was a terrific playwright," he said, "the characters were well drawn and very sharp."
Also an actor and playwright, Frangione has directed plays in New York, Boston and at BPL. "Lady Randy" is his first professional full-length play in the Berkshires.
"There's nothing more exciting than a new play," he said, "the spark of creating a world that no one's created before."
Undeland is a great collaborator, he said, "during rehearsals we're constantly revising."
Zeisler had participated in an earlier play reading, and Frangione knew him well, having acted with him in Boston.
"He has the experience and talent [for] this kind of play," Frangione said, "and there's a lot of comedy when one actor plays lots of characters."
Frangione suggested the play to van Ginhoven, "knowing it would be in good hands." She attended a Ventfort Hall reading at his invitation, and "knew right away it was a WAM play."
"The aesthetic was right up our alley," van Ginhoven said, "the empowering story of a woman by a local woman playwright."
With a mission to create opportunity for female-identifying theater artists, however, engaging WAM's first male director was a difficult decision for van Ginhoven.
"As an artist, I knew [Frangione] was part of the package," she said. "As an activist, it was really tough."
Ultimately, "men have to be part of this conversation to bring this perspective forward."
The world premiere opens WAM's 10th anniversary season. A portion of ticket sales benefits Tapestry reproductive health care and The Mooncatcher Project, which supports girls' education in poor countries through free menstrual products.
Getting the call from WAM Theatre "was a dream come true" for the novice playwright.
"It's really exciting, especially at this stage in my life," Undeland said. "I have something to say and through playwriting and performing I can say it.
"I love living in Jerome's skin, I find it fascinating and rewarding. She's so interesting and she's no saint."
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