Living history

The single woman, Jeanmarie Simpson, meets “everyman,” played by Cameron Crain.

The single woman, Jeanmarie Simpson, meets “everyman,” played by Cameron Crain.

Sometimes an outstanding show lands unexpectedly in Sacramento out of the clear blue sky. That’s what happened last year, when California Stage hosted the Nevada Shakespeare Company’s production of A Single Woman for a short, two-weekend run in February.

The subject of the play—the life and opinions of the remarkable Jeannette Rankin—was not familiar to this reviewer. (In 1916, Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. This was before women got the right to vote in most states.) Equally unfamiliar was the work of actress and playwright Jeanmarie Simpson, who put the show together.

The show turned out to be quite impressive—so much so that SN&R dubbed A Single Woman the “Best theatrical surprise” in the 2004 Best of Sacramento issue. A Single Woman returns to California Stage next week, this time for a longer run. And this time, we’ve taken the opportunity to interview the playwright.

Simpson became aware of Rankin by accident in 2002. “I was on the Carnegie Hall Web site for unrelated reasons and found her on their historic timeline. She spoke there in 1917, shortly after her inauguration,” Simpson said. “I was astounded, because I considered myself a very savvy feminist. How could I have missed the first woman elected to Congress? I’d never heard of her!”

Simpson’s research revealed that Rankin had led a long, fascinating life. She was born on the American frontier in 1880 and was raised on a ranch. She is remembered primarily for her political career, which was forever marked by a decision she made only four days after being sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives in 1917.

After much soul searching, Rankin voted against the United States entering World War I, saying, “As a woman, I can’t go to war. And I refuse to send anyone else.” President Woodrow Wilson was unhappy with her, and so were many constituents. Rankin’s decision also riled her friends in the women’s-suffrage movement, who feared that Rankin’s stance would make it more difficult to pass a constitutional amendment giving women in all states the right to vote.

Rankin was elected to Congress a second time in 1940, and she had voted against entry into World War II. “She broke up the unanimity of the vote on December 8, 1941, and the boys didn’t want the world to know there was an American who would do that,” Simpson explained. “When I came across the quote attributed to her, ‘You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake,’… I knew she was the character I had been looking for my entire adult life.

“I had always felt that there was an historic figure out there that I would play in an original performance work,” Simpson said. “And there she was. The fact that she was from Montana, a Western state, and her speech patterns were so similar to mine—I’m from Arizona—was more validation.”

Of course, getting theater companies to stage a play about a pioneering, outspoken feminist pacifist like Rankin is not easy. “Theater companies, as a rule, think it’s weird or risky,” Simpson acknowledged, “though there are exceptions.” Simpson has taken the show to six states so far, and it’s been seen by more than 15,000 people.

The play is almost a monologue, with Simpson (as Rankin) working in the kitchen. She talks as she mixes bread dough, puts it in the oven and cuts up lemons for lemonade. Simpson said the idea stems from her studies with groundbreaking director Tadeusz Kantor. Onstage, Simpson seeks “an investigation of metaphoric, parallel activity—real action—rather than illusionism,” she said. “It was my director, Cameron Crain, who came up with the idea of me baking bread. I added the lemonade.”

The play covers Rankin’s time in Congress as well as her work with many of the issues of her times. She supported labor unions in the Western states, traveled to India to study nonviolence, was a supporter of the civil-rights movement and set up a women’s cooperative homestead in the Southern United States. She returned to public life when she was in her 80s, to protest the Vietnam War. Rankin was fearless and feisty to be sure. She is quotable and controversial even now, more than 30 years after she passed away.