Martha Mitchell is having a moment. In April 2022, a well-reviewed limited series about the outspoken wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, with Julia Roberts in the lead, began to air. Two months later, a short-form documentary, “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” was released on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. It would be nominated for an Academy Award.
…a labor of love…The best performance comes from Jaya Tripathi as Helen Thomas, who knows what it’s like to not be taken seriously by the men.
Now, Martha’s story is being told in “Shut Up Martha” at the Capital Fringe Festival. It’s clearly a labor of love for Jake Lipman who, in addition to starring as Mitchell, also wrote, directed, and produced the show. Her performance is credible, but “Shut Up Martha” adds little to the Mitchell story and moves at a quick-jump speed that may confuse those who are unfamiliar with the tale.
In brief, Arkansas-born Martha Beall became the unlikely spouse of Manhattan attorney John Mitchell in 1957. In late 1966, former Vice President Richard Nixon’s law firm merged with Mitchell’s and the two became partners. When Nixon became president in 1969, he named Mitchell attorney general. Both Mitchells were devoted to Nixon—Martha perhaps more than John—but Martha saw no need to restrain her blunt and boisterous personality just because she was now a “Washington wife.”
Her frank and funny comments to reporters made her a favorite of the Republican base, and the party made good use of her on the campaign trail. But as with some of those loyal to the most recent Republican president who turned against him when scandal struck, Martha put truth and country above her loyalty to the man she called “Mr. President.” Five nights after the Watergate break-in, she placed a call to reporter Helen Thomas from a California hotel. The call was abruptly cut off, and Thomas could not reach her again. Thomas called John Mitchell who seemed strangely calm.
Martha Mitchell had been abducted and drugged to keep her from talking to the press and was left with injuries from her attempts to escape. Nixon henchmen, including her own husband, threatened to institutionalize her and spread stories that Martha’s known penchant for social drinking had gotten out of hand and that she could not be believed.
Nixon would resign and John Mitchell would be jailed, but Martha’s role as a whistleblower was downplayed in histories for decades. Only re-examinations of Watergate around the time of the 50th anniversary gave Martha her due.
“Shut Up Martha” focuses on the central acts of this saga, but it comes in too late. We see Martha and John have a conversation or two, and Martha make some vaguely risky remarks, before the sudden scene of the abduction. Without knowledge of her history or why Nixon saw her as a danger, it is hard to understand what is happening or why. The play ends in 1973 after Martha has offered closed-door testimony, but the implication of the final scene is that she was honored and respected for this brave act. The truth is much sadder.
Lipman rightly sees Mitchell as a hero and plays her as strong-willed and unbreakable, but her characterization is too restrained for this high-spirited and lively woman. The best performance comes from Jaya Tripathi as Helen Thomas, who knows what it’s like to not be taken seriously by the men.
The ensemble portraying the rest of the characters is competent, but the workmanlike script gives them little room to shine. (An exception is a fun scene where Loralee Tyson’s Carl Bernstein tries in vain to get Matt Gibson’s Bob Woodward from stealing all the credit.)
Martha Mitchell made history because she always had something to say. But “Shut Up Martha” does not say enough.
Running time: 50 minutes.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 13 and up.
“Shut Up Martha” runs through July 16, 2023 at Capital Fringe Squirt, 1050 Thomas Jefferson Street NW, Washington 20007. For tickets and information, click here. For more information and tickets for the festival which runs through July 23, 2023, go to the Capital Fringe website.