For Debra Wagoner, currently in the Virginia Rep production of Martha Mitchell Calling at Hanover Tavern, has been a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“After Rick Hammerly, our director, described the character of Martha Mitchell to me, it was a done deal,” says Wagoner, who is starring in the show with her husband, Joe Pabst, as John Mitchell.
For anyone who doesn’t remember or know about the Watergate scandal or its impact, Martha Mitchell is the legendary wife of Watergate conspirator and Attorney General John Mitchell. Martha was ostracized as a traitor and abandoned by her family when she demanded the truth and called for President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
As Nixon himself told David Frost during their famous 1977 interview, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
Prepping for Roles of a Lifetime
Before production started, Wagoner and Pabst looked through as many news clips about Martha as they could find. The couple also watched interviews of Martha along with a Netflix documentary about her.
Wagoner describes Martha as “vivacious and fun, but with a vulnerability that perhaps people didn’t see – or chose not to see,” she says.
After her research, Wagoner says she thinks Martha loved her husband John completely. She believed in his innocence and very publicly and passionately fought for him.
“When things fell apart, she told David Frost in an interview she would never marry again because she was devastated after giving her whole heart to someone like she did to John,” Wagoner says.
Humor is built into the play thanks to Martha’s humorous, delightful personality, Wagoner adds.
“It was what made her a celebrity initially. She was sought after for appearances at benefits and fundraisers – her little quips, her laughter, and conversation delighted thousands of people. So, while there aren’t outright jokes in the play, the humor is there, because it’s Martha.”
Wagoner shares that love of laughter with her character and admires Martha’s integrity and perseverance. “I think I have a good sense of humor like Martha. I also think I would have no problem telling the truth, even if it meant people saying I was crazy,” she says. “I’m different [from her] in that I don’t enjoy big parties and events. That’s never been my style.”
Connections to Present Day
Wagoner hopes people who see the play will understand how important it is to listen to and hear people and whistleblowers and then, “thoroughly investigate allegations. What happened to Martha Mitchell was a tragedy, beyond cruel – and never should have happened,” she says.
Pabst was interested in the play for two reasons. It was a chance to work with his wife, and it played to his interest in the political landscape of the time period during Watergate.
“I think it’s important sometimes to look back at our history to try to understand how it influenced our present,” he says.
He finds that John Mitchell has a “curious duality in his character. On one hand, he is a charming and loving husband. On the other, he is a cold and calculating political manipulator. And he struggles with that,” Pabst says. “As Martha says, he has to choose between devotion to his wife – and the truth – or devotion to the President – and his lies.”
When their relationship began, John and Martha were married to other people. John was “completely taken with Martha,” Pabst says. “And, I believe he truly loved her. As his political career grew, however, he came to see her outspoken nature as a problem. Their relationship deteriorated over time as John became mired deeper into scandal while Martha clung to the truth.”
Why Supporting Women is Important
Pabst hopes audiences will come away from the production with a greater respect for Martha Mitchell.
“By standing up for the truth and what she believed was right, she sacrificed everything,” he says. “Her marriage was destroyed; her reputation was slandered; she was vilified as a looney and an alcoholic who battled depression and mental illness. But in the end, Martha was right. And she paid the price for it.”
The subject matter of the play is incredibly relevant in our current political landscape, he adds. “Once again, we are hearing so many conflicting accounts, ’alternative facts’ and smearing of voices that disagree with one’s position. In a time where the truth is questioned so rigorously – on all sides – it’s imperative that we look past all the rhetoric, keep a firm grip on reality and remember to do what’s right – at all costs,” Pabst says.
“Women are once again losing agency and possibly a voice in this country,” adds Wagoner. “Martha was dismissed and her reputation destroyed, and because she was a woman it made it even easier for the public to believe. Some things never change.”
Part of Virginia Rep’s Barksdale season at Hanover Tavern, Martha Mitchell Calling runs through October 29 at Hanover Tavern. For showtimes and tickets, visit va-rep.org.
Read the RFM review by Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert.