A Single Woman
Scrub your counters, buy bags of lemons and packets of yeast, and preheat your ovens. Nevada Shakespeare Company’s A Single Woman could be coming to a kitchen near you. The kitchen may seem an odd place for a play about the first congresswoman of the United States. But for an iron-willed and never-married woman like Jeanette Rankin, the fact that she finds solace in her kitchen is a reminder that she was female and that all her anti-war sentiments and ideals were based upon principles as simple and genuine as your staff-of-life bread and homemade-from-the- heart lemonade.
The play, starring and written by Jeanmarie Simpson, is based on the speeches, letters and life of Rankin. Simpson comes onto stage, or rather into kitchen, as Rankin and ties an apron around her waist. She butters a bread pan, wipes her hands on a towel and opens a recipe book. “I went to congress with violets in my hair …” she says. “I went before suffrage, before Rosie the Riveter, before pictures. I went before Gloria Steinem was a gleam in her daddy’s eye.”
Montana Republican I-was- never-a-Republican-I-ran-on-the-Republican-ticket Rankin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1917 (women didn’t earn the right to vote until 1920). The play begins at the end of Rankin’s life at her home in Carmel, Calif., and moves backward through time until her childhood in Montana.
Throughout the play, Rankin doesn’t hesitate to criticize presidents such as Nixon and Truman and FDR (all played by Everyman, actor and director Cameron Crain) when they make decisions that she thinks are hasty, uniformed or just plain wrong. Rankin flatly accuses FDR of having war for fun and says that before World War II, the U.S. government was “creating a Petri dish in which someone like Hitler could grow.”
During her second stint in congress, elected in 1940, Rankin was the only member to vote against the declaration of war on Japan. Her pacifism made her very unpopular, but she never faltered in her stance. She believed when women gained the vote, they would become more active in politics and protest all courses of action that were not peaceful. When women didn’t take up her cause, she was frustrated and disappointed.
“We women should picket everything and be willing to go to prison,” Rankin says. “Women instead are cows, letting their calves be taken away and then having another.”
Between her speeches, her reading of letters and her interactions with Everyman, Rankin makes bread rolls and lemonade. When Rankin becomes impassioned, saying things like, “War’s a habit, like alcohol to an intemperate man,” Simpson cleverly portrays Rankin’s fury by violently kneading the bread—probably the most violent motion Rankin herself ever made. When Simpson speaks, the air is electrified; her words are surely filled with as much power as Rankin’s ever were. Simpson’s timing and emotion are intense and flawless.
As clichéd as it sounds, audiences will probably look at war in a different and more dangerous light after seeing A Single Woman. Even those who support war as an often necessary plan of action will find charm, compassion and insight in Rankin’s life.
After the play, the bread rolls that Rankin placed in the oven about 20 minutes before the play’s end are cooked, and Simpson shares them with anyone who wants them. Eating the rolls is a consuming experience, even after the play is over. It’s like eating Rankin’s morals. If people could have just swallowed a few of her ideals over the years, perhaps the world would not be where it is today.