WAM Theatre gathers a vintage harvest with 'Lady Randy'

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LENOX — History comes alive in vibrantly theatrical and intellectual ways in Anne Undeland's deftly written "Lady Randy," which is having a largely appealing and engaging world premiere by WAM Theatre under the smooth directorial guidance of Jim Frangione.

"Lady Randy" begins in a London hospital in 1921 where Lady Randolph Churchill — born 67 years earlier in New York, the middle of three daughters of Brooklyn financier Leonard Jerome — is lying on blood-stained sheets, hemorrhaging to death following a fall while running down a flight of stairs in high-heeled shoes.

Summoned by the hospital staff, her son, Winston, then 46, has rushed to her side. What follows over the play's remaining 80 minutes or so is a course-of-a-life reflection — "a kind of fever dream," Undeland writes in a script note — narrated by Jennie to Winston and, by extension, the audience, that tracks Jennie from the age of five and reveals a headstrong. determined woman who, forged by the life lessons taught by her father, pushed boundaries; often redefining them in the process.

"No one's your equal," says her father (an imposing, formidable, admiring Mark Zeisler in one in a series of robust, incisive, masterly portrayals of the men, and two women, in Jennie's life) as he presents her with a diamond star to wear in her hair as, at the age of 15, she is preparing to head overseas. "You get under people's skin. They look at you and they think, this girl's headed for big things, important things. I got the star to help you remember where you're headed."

Indeed.

"I wore papa's star when I met the Prince of Wales," she says. "I wore it when I met Randolph Churchill. It launched me."

The two were introduced to each other by the Prince of Wales on board his yacht in August 1873 and were married two years later. She moved into her husband's imposing family seat, Blenheim Palace. But the 2,000-acre Marlborough family estate and especially its 187-room palace with its insufficient indoor plumbing and almost total lack of hot water falls far short of Jennie's expectations. "You cannot get me back to London soon enough," spirit Jennie tells Winston.

Those shortcomings prove emblematic. The birth of Winston — yes, that Winston — is difficult. The politically ambitious Lord Churchill spends long periods of time away from home and, in a complete game-changer, contracts syphilis. Jennie takes on a series of lovers but her more enduring gratification is managing her husband's promising political career which took him from a seat in Parliament — which he wins as a result of his wife's arduous, personal campaigning for him in his home district while he was serving as Secretary of State for India — to, eventually, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tory leader of the House of Commons. Among Undeland's triumphs is a scene that finds Lady Churchill in the Parliament gallery, vocally guiding her husband through his noteworthy maiden speech in the House of Commons, to an orgasmic pitch.

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And when her husband's political career comes crashing down — a combination of his challenging, impolitic relationship with the powerful prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, and the increasing effects of syphilis, which eventually claimed his life — the resourceful Jennie does what she must to survive.

It's no accident, I think, that two of the production's more revealing moments involve two sequences with each of two lovers that play to the complex complementary layers in Jennie's personality — Lord Kinsky, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to London, who engages Jennie's wit and intellect and soul as much as he does her hearty libidinous impulses until, that is, he leaves her for a younger woman; and Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, played by Zeisler, as a corpulent fool for lust and self-indulgence, who engages a childishly giddy and adventurous, if also degrading, side of Jennie, not to mention a certain social and political calculation.

As played and written by Undeland, Jennie learns her lessons well from her father, even as she suffers fools for lovers. While, with the exceptions of Kinsky and, after Lord Randolph's death, her imposing mother-in-law, the Duchess of Marlborough, she is rarely seen for the person she is. Jennie finds herself, in part, in the influence she exerts over seriously flawed, dependent men, including her son, Winston, portrayed by Zeisler as a shy, stuttering, stumbling young man who, as he gets ready to plunge into politics, is smart enough to realize his most valuable resource is his mother, whom he persuades to support and guide him.

Undeland holds little back in a performance that is as much at the barricades as it is nuanced and subtle. As a writer, she has put this material together with impressive skill and a keen sense of wit and the underlying emotional impulses and dynamics that shape and move her characters. Onstage, she has in Zeisler an extraordinary partner who plows into his nine male and two female characters with seamless skill, selection and observation.

"The wine of life was in her veins," Winston says of his mother after she has passed.

Vintage.

"The wine of life was in her veins," Winston says of his mother after she has passed.

Vintage.


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