A career-driven woman watches her marriage fall apart, becomes isolated from her children, and weathers the scorn of the public.
The plot details sound ripped from today’s tabloids, but “Fanny Kemble’s Lenox Address,” a one-woman play performed Thursday, March 29 at the Russell House, tells a story firmly rooted in the past.
The piece, written by political playwright John Gardner in 2003, tells the story of Fanny Kemble, an eminent 19th century actress, author, and abolitionist caught in the throes of a very public divorce. Unchanged for the performance, the Russell House’s small parlor effectively doubled as an 1849 Massachusetts summer home and the backdrop to Kemble’s sad tale. Indeed, when actress Anne Undeland ’87 emerged from behind the audience in a blue satin corseted dress, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Undeland, an accomplished stage actress who has worked with BBC Radio and Shakespeare & Company, was vivacious and powerful in the role of Kemble from the moment she greeted the audience with a commanding “Good evening.”
Alex Early ’07 played Elizabeth Haggerty, the hostess of Kemble’s address and the only other role in the play. Early was recruited for the play by Assistant Professor of Theater Claudia Nascimento.
“The best parts for me were really getting to know someone who makes a living performing one-woman shows and acting in various mediums, and, of course, being able to watch her piece,” Early said of her experiences with Undeland.
The address tells a story of tragedy and oppression. Undeland’s kind, expressive face emanated sincerity when telling the tale of her character’s marriage to and divorce from wealthy Philadelphia lawyer and slave owner Pierce Butler. An independent thinker and advocate of abolition and women’s rights, Kemble was a far cry from the gentle, submissive wife both her husband and society expected her to be. Consequently, she found herself made a prisoner of her own home, with Butler using their two daughters to control her daily actions.
In the play’s most poignant moments, Kemble recollects time spent with slaves on their plantation. Though only directly addressing the mistreatment of the slaves, Gardner’s subtle and expert crafting of the monologue makes the parallels between the horrific plight of the slaves and the confining abuse of a woman in high society all too clear.
Undeland admitted the performance’s small audience made her job more difficult, but her performance took advantage of the intimate setting. During her monologues, she would often sit down next to audience members as if she were speaking to them alone.
“There was not a moment watching Anne in which I stopped believing that she was Fanny Kemble,” Early said. “I hope that Anne can come back for a bigger audience, because so many people, actors and others, would learn from her performance.”