It starts off as if it’s going to turn into A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 or A DOLL’S LIFE.
But don’t accuse John Wulp of plagiarism. He wrote THE SAINTLINESS OF MARGERY KEMP sixty years ago, long before Lucas Hnath, Larry Grossman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green had their ideas for their sequels to Henrik Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE.
Still, 1958 audiences in Massachusetts and 1959 off-Broadway attendees must have thought about Nora Helmer while they were watching Wulp’s drama. He had housewife-mother Margery Kempe tell her husband John that she’s leaving him and that’s that.
You might have less sympathy for Margery. After all, Nora’s husband had greatly disappointed her in not apprecating how she was trying to help him; if John Kempe has wronged his wife, we see no evidence of it.
And if you have ever disapproved of Nora’s walking out on her three children, you’ll find Margery’s leaving twice as bad – for she literally has a brood of six. That this is happening in the Middle Ages – close to 500 years before Nora took her walk – makes the situation even more eyebrow-raising.
Margery’s motivation is simply to live a carefree life and have adventure after adventure. The self-proclaimed “not virtuous” Margery is determined “to go to hell my own way.”
When John reminds her of the promise that she made to God when she married him, she’s not above saying “Damn God!” Then she leaves without slamming so much as a door.
“Why can’t the world accommodate those who want to be spectacular?” she asks the first person she meets on the road. He’ll give her the chance by selling her his brewery and while we fully expect the cocksure Margery to become an entrepreneur in this semi-scandalous profession, we have a surprise in store. After one debacle after another, 31 minutes into the two-hour play (actually representing a year in her life), Margery admits “Every road is closed to us now except the road homeward.”
Margery fully expects that John will take her back. Happy ending? Not so fast. Margery still has dreams the size of industrial strength pipes. Now that she’s failed in the secular world, she’ll try the spiritual one.
(Are you there, God? It’s me, Margery.)
Now A DOLL’S LIFE morphs into SAINT JOAN. Margery claims she hears voices and sees visions. Because she’s dealing with less lofty people than the eminences whom Joan of Arc encountered, Margery isn’t dismissed out of hand.
One of Wulp’s messages is that the problem with being a so-called “God-fearing man” is that he tends to be afraid of many more situations than a man who isn’t. Some that Margery meets worry what will happen to them if she is indeed telling the truth. Doubting a woman who really has God’s ear could result in The Deity’s becoming angry with them. Wulp stresses that there’s so little tangible evidence in matters of faith that one doesn’t know what to believe – and that not believing may be the smartest course of action.
When Margery does meet the local vicar, she finds him far less inclined to buy her visions and voices. Then she unequivocally states that God has a favorable opinion of him. Flattery may not work on everybody, but it hits the spot with the vicar.
He nevertheless commands her to “Make a miracle,” and she’s soon claiming that she’s done just that. See if you think she has from the evidence she gives. Also contrast her with the nice description of St. Bridget. After you hear what she was like, you’ll understand why Agnes Gooch prayed to her.
Sometimes the play meanders and becomes as messy as a Collier Brothers’ Fifth Avenue home. There’s an all-too-convenient deus ex machina, too. At least Wulp stokes our interest in a genuine historical character we’ve probably missed along the way: Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1438) is said to have written the world’s first autobiography.
If she is indeed the initiator of that literary genre, she obviously thought a lot of herself to assume that anyone would be interested enough in her life to spend time reading page after page about her. Wulp has certainly captured that self-centeredness. If Margery is actually the saint she always claims she is, deem her the patron saint of The “Me” Generation.
This is a major role and Andrus Nichols does well by it. One does however wish that a major star, a legend in her own time, had tackled the part. She would have given an out-and-out bravura performance that would have made Margery unforgettable.
Austin Pendleton’s direction impresses. All his supporting actors give unmannered, real-person performances with one exception: Jason O’Connell as John has a sitcom sensibility. He likes to make a face to punctuate a line in hopes that he’ll get a laugh. Pendleton should have instead kept him in line.
So while Wulp is putting Margery in as many picaresque escapades as Candide ever endured, he makes his point: God is supposed to be real, but just let a woman say that God is speaking to her and the clergy will automatically believe she’s crazy. Must the God who’s considered to be real be the one that is never ever seen or heard? Wulp suggests that there may be a more likely reason why God doesn’t speak to anyone.