A woman’s power

How A Single Woman made Jeanmarie Simpson a star of stage and screen

“Quiet on the set!” Here’s Jeanmarie Simpson in front of the camera during the filming of <span style=A Single Woman.">

“Quiet on the set!” Here’s Jeanmarie Simpson in front of the camera during the filming of A Single Woman.

Jeanmarie Simpson’s play A Single Woman—about the life of early feminist, pacifist and politician Jeannette Rankin—started out in Sacramento with a brief, little-publicized run at Ray Tatar’s California Stage in February of 2004. It went on to some 263 performances around the country and is now becoming an independent film—one that likely will screen in Sacramento this coming spring as a benefit for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Simpson can barely believe the journey that the play has taken her on.

“I had absolutely no idea all this would happen at the outset. … I just knew it was an itch that needed to be scratched,” she told SN&R in early December.

Worried about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and mother of a son in the Navy, Simpson became absorbed in the life of Jeanette Rankin (1880-1973), who met numerous presidents and world leaders over her long career. Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress (in 1916, representing Montana), and was elected again in 1940. A lifelong pacifist, she became the only member of Congress to vote against the United States entry into both World War I and World War II. And in 1968 (at the age of 88) she led a “brigade” of 5,000 women on a march to the U.S. Capitol to protest the Vietnam War.

“I found the words of Jeanette Rankin to resonate in such a clear, non-flowery way … just straightforward sensible talk that said, ‘You can’t win a war … it is the slaughter of human beings, no matter how you look at it,’ ” Simpson said. So she began writing a script about Rankin’s life for two actors—one playing Rankin, the other playing a cavalcade of individuals who she met along the way.

Simpson, who runs the Nevada Shakespeare Company in Reno, said she owes a great deal to Tatar. He’s the one who originally booked the fledgling project at California Stage—a small theater in a metal shed at the corner of 25th and R streets in Sacramento next to the light-rail tracks. (Incidentally, SN&R was the first publication to review the show—it earned a rave.)

“I was just starting to write it when he called me and asked if I had a piece,” Simpson said. “[The play] wouldn’t have matured if Ray hadn’t seen what he saw in the story. It was my first draft, and it was a shadow of what it is now. Ray should have an award; people don’t recognize what a champion he is.”

After the California Stage premiere, Simpson took A Single Woman on the road, playing in small theaters and also before church groups, conventions of peace groups and elsewhere. The show returned to California Stage in January of 2005, then had an off-Broadway run in New York (at the Culture Project).

The New York production was seen by independent-film artist Kamala Lopez-Dawson, and she expressed interest in making a film. The project went before cameras in Los Angeles this past fall.

“Making the film was entirely different [from performing the play] because the film was shot out of sequence. And it has 17 actors in it, many of whom play multiple roles.”

Simpson, who played Rankin in the film, also “aged” in various scenes. “I started with eye bags, added jowls and later a crazy neck, so that I looked 93.”

The entire project was filmed in just four days, with many of the actors (including Judd Nelson, among others) participating at union minimum, mostly because they wanted to be involved.

The film is being edited and will begin screening in the spring, “and we’ll do a Sacramento screening for sure, probably in March,” Simpson said. The Sacramento screening will be a benefit for WILPF (Rankin was a founder).

Meantime, after 263 live performances, Simpson has “retired” A Single Woman from the stage.

“I just had to close the play,” she said. Artists, after all, eventually need to move on, even when a project is a great success. “I also realized that a film could reach so many more people, because we could give it to WILPF branches and people could buy DVDs, including a Making Of A Single Woman film … the DVD will have all kinds of fun extras.”