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The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 12, 2018

Michael Genet, Jason O’Connell, Timothy Doyle,
Andrus Nichols, and Thomas Sommo
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Morality and domesticity are so fourteenth century. Margery Kempe, wife, mother, and housekeeper, is fed up with the medieval constraints on women. "Damn all morality!" the less than saintly title character of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe exclaims at the beginning of John Wulp's play. Even if she is destined to go to hell for her rebelliousness, she vows to "have an adventure or two!"

Margery, performed with indomitable spirit by Andrus Nichols in the current production at the Duke on 42nd Street, is a very modern woman. In this adaptation of The Book of Margery Kempe, which often is acknowledged as the first autobiography written in the English language, Margery leaves her devoted and ever-patient husband (Jerry O'Connell)—several times, as a matter of fact—to become an entrepreneur, mystic, and self-proclaimed saint. The Middle Ages was obviously not a good time for women with a knack for self-promotion like Margery Kempe's.

She first tries her hand as a brewery owner with the assistance of an old and temperamental horse named Pegasus (played with suitably equine stubbornness by Thomas Sommo). When the brewery goes bust, Margery returns home, but her familial devotion does not last long. Having tried the life of a sinner without much success, she is determined to take an altogether different approach and become a saint. She has had visions from God, so she only needs to wait for a miracle and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sainthood for Margery is the surest route to stardom and independence.

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe was first presented in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1958, and it premiered Off-Broadway the following year with a cast that included Frances Sternhagen, Gene Hackman, and Charles Nelson Reilly. According to the program note, director Austin Pendleton rediscovered the original text and saw in the play a contemporary relevance. Once can understand the attraction. Margery is a daffy, larger-than-life, and fiercely liberated spirit. She is, in effect, a cross between Lucy Ricardo and Joan of Arc.

Pippa Pearthree, Andrus Nichols, and Jason O’Connell
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Ultimately, however, Wulp's play is disappointing. The play aims for big laughs, but not all of the ludicrousness lands. Many of the episodic scenes tend to plod along, and even as the plot traverses several decades and continents, the script does not have a sense of forward movement and urgency. It also lacks, for instance, the satirical precision of a work like Candide or the grandness of Peer Gynt, both sprawling epics with huge casts of characters.

Still, Pendleton has drawn fine performances from his nine-person ensemble. As Margery, Nichols embodies the impishness and fearlessness of the character, and she appropriately balances the kookiness and pathos of a woman who is out of joint in her world and era. O'Connell, who played the explosive and off-kilter husband in the recent production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June is restrained and sympathetic as Margery's saintly husband and as Friar Bonadventure, the philosophically resigned leader of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem.

The other actors, performing triple and quadruple duty to cover the several dozen roles, are equally fine. Pippa Pearthree, in particular, is very funny as Mistress Bethany Fribley, a member of the Jerusalem tour, and who is not at all impressed with Margery's presumed sainthood and constant wailing through the Holy Land. Additionally, Michael Genet is appropriately oily as the man who wants to unload his portable brewery, and Timothy Doyle is delightfully deadpan throughout, especially as the Broken-Backed Man who has carried the weight of the world on him.

The production benefits from a spare design, allowing the focus to remain on the strong performances. Jennifer Tipton and Matthew Richards's lighting is effective in conveying a storybook brightness and sensibility. Barbara A. Bell's medieval-inflected costumes are helpful in defining the period as well as practical in distinguishing the multitude of characters.

Gloria Steinem famously said, "Don't think about making women fit the world—think about making the world fit women." Despite its flaws, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is a reminder that a woman does not have to be a saint nor a sinner to change the world. But a miracle or two wouldn't hurt.

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe
Through August 26
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: