BWW Reviews: Dorothy Thompson Comes to Life in The Nora Theatre Company's CASSANDRA SPEAKS
As I walked into the Central Square Theater, I was greeted by smiling ushers who handed me a program, pointed me in the direction of my seat, and informed me that the show would run just under ninety minutes. This is always rather pleasing to me, as I think that today's audiences (myself included) are losing their attention span and prefer a shorter show. I think there is talent in fitting a complete narrative into a palatable time frame, and I was excited that The Nora Theatre Company was doing so. But as I sat in my seat and began perusing the reading material before me, I realized that Cassandra Speaks by Norman Plotkin was a ninety minute show with only one performer and my pleasure turned to nerves.
A one-woman show is no easy task, particularly when attempting to mix autobiography with an arched storyline. So much that makes up a complete narrative is the different players and it is fairly difficult to illustrate all aspects of a fully rounded story without those players present. That all being said, I was overwhelmingly impressed with how well this particular story was told. This was no common one-woman show; rather, it was an emotional, present hour and a half with a woman dealing with second thoughts before her wedding, reminiscing and recollecting all that she had done in her life prior. It was a glimpse into the mind of someone great.
That someone is Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist and radio broadcaster during WWII who was known to some as the "First Lady of American Journalism". In Cassandra Speaks, we see her the morning of her third wedding, as she struggles to finish an article, looks back on her previous loves, and recounts her accomplishments and failures as a journalist in Europe and America. Plotkin managed to provide a fairly thorough biography of this great woman, while still making it feel in the moment and like a complete story, utilizing a broken fourth wall (Thompson spoke directly to the audience) and other characters appearing through phone calls with her. Admittedly, the build was a bit murky at times, since her historical stories would be interrupted by the present day phone calls, both of which had their own emotional stakes, so the arch wasn't perfectly clear. But overall, I was very impressed by how it read both as a concise story and account of her life.
This show could not have happened without the talents of Tod Randolph, the brilliant actress who took on this marathon of a show and stayed remarkably present and honest throughout a roller coaster of emotions. Randolph obviously did her research, as she was so accurate to who I believe Thompson was. Having looked a bit into Thompson myself, I was amazed at the specificity Randolph provided, down to the woman's speech patterns and accent. Randolph told this revolutionary journalist's story with grace and power, and I was captivated by her from the start.
Aesthetically, the piece was stunning in its detail. The show took place in Thompson's living room and the set, designed by Patrick Brennan, paid attention to every tiny nuance, down to crumpled papers on the floor, a single orange on the desk, and an oriental rug that has seen better days. I could be mistaken, but I imagine the photographs speckled throughout the room were actual photos of Thompson and her peers. I didn't love the backdrop out the window, but that is just nitpicking.
My one real critique is small. There were moments of "memory", where Thompson would not simply be telling a story, but would almost go into one for a minute or two. These moments were shown by shadowy, colored lighting and a crescendo of sound, be it a Hitler speech or an angry crowd or music of the time. It was quite nice the first time, but eventually got a bit repetitive. She had probably 3 or 4 of these memory moments and they didn't differ much at all. The drastic switch from present to past lost its power with every time we saw it.
I am generally not the biggest fan of shows with only one performer, as I think they veer towards story time or a reading of a book, but I so very much enjoyed this powerhouse piece. Playwright Plotkin and Director Nicole Ricciardi obviously worked well together, creating a production that jointly spanned decades and contained itself to a present day morning. And Randolph made Thompson so real, as well as those historical figures with whom she'd interacted. I honestly felt as though I understood who this woman was, what she was feeling, and why she'd made the choices she had by the end of the performance. This was a one-woman show done right.
Written by Normal Plotkin; Directed by Nicole Ricciardi; Scenic Design by Patrick Brennan; Costume Design by Kara Knots; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Michael Pfieffer; Stage Managment by Dominique D. Burford; Assistant Stage Management by Fatimah Mateen; and Starring Tod Randolph as Dorothy Thompson.
The Nora Theatre Company's production of Cassandra Speaks is running at the Central Square Theater through June 29th. For more information, visit their website www.centralsquaretheater.org.