Thirty years after Watergate brought down President Richard Nixon and most of his administration, Martha Mitchell's name has faded into obscurity. But in her hometown of Pine Bluff, they work to keep alive the memory of then-Attorney General John Mitchell's wife, whose loose lips helped sink Nixon's ship.
Bob Abbott, who owns the Martha Beall Mitchell Museum (her birthplace and childhood home), thought a play about Pine Bluff's famous daughter could be a tourist draw.
"She's one of the hottest historical things we have in town," Abbott said. "More people who come here from out of town ask about her than anybody else." (For those who don't recall, Martha Mitchell was famous for calling reporters to lay responsibility for the Watergate coverup at Nixon's feet and to sometimes criticize her husband for protecting the president.)
The idea eventually landed in the lap of Los Angeles filmmaker, playwright and author Tom Doran in 2002, who wrote and directs the play. Last year, he hired three veteran actors for the key roles of Martha, John Mitchell and Nixon.
The play premieres at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 11, at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff. It continues at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday as well as a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee. Tickets cost $15. Call the Arts Center at 870-536-3375 for more information.
Where the play goes after its Pine Bluff run is anyone's guess, but Doran said he'd love to see it go on the road. Financing such a tour is the first obstacle.
"This Is Martha Speaking" briefly covers her childhood, some of her time in college, and events before and through the Watergate era. "It's her point of view on many, many things," Doran said. "Watergate is not the focal point of the drama."
Lee Anne Moore, who plays Martha, is a Lewisville native returning for a home-state performance from Los Angeles. She graduated from high school in 1974, when the Watergate hearings and Nixon's resignation in August dominated TV coverage.
"I definitely remember Martha," Moore said. "I was not as clear on what she was about politically, but I knew she was a very outspoken lady. I saw her on 'Laugh In.' They always made fun of her, and when she went on the show I thought that was the coolest thing. The woman is ridiculed and goes and joins the party." The show itself has laughs, but it's more a drama, Moore said.
Michael Childers, whose acting roles include parts on TV's "E.R.," "The X-Files," "Star Trek Enterprise" and HBO's "Six Feet Under," stars as John Mitchell. Coby Hunt, who's played supporting roles on television and now lives in Hot Springs, plays Nixon. A dozen local actors fill out the cast.
Doran did extensive interviews with Pine Bluff residents who knew Mitchell, particularly businessman Ray West. He also drew material from newspaper articles from the era.
Martha Mitchell's life ended mysteriously. Suffering from cancer, she claimed in her final days that she once had been kidnapped by government agents, sequestered in a hotel room and injected with cancer-causing drugs. Nonetheless, Doran promises, it "definitely ends on the upbeat. I think you'll be surprised."
Doran includes slides of images from the 1970s and newspaper front pages as well as audio clips to add drama to the story.
Doran hopes the play will be chosen for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland next year. Abbott, who has provided much of the underwriting for the project, would like to see it staged in Pine Bluff from time to time. He's happy about what he's seen so far. "The actors have all been great. One of them said, 'This is a second vacation for me.' That feels great when they say something nice about our town."