Margery Kempe was a Christian mystic who lived in England as the late 1300s turned into the early 1400s. She is remembered today for The Book of Margery Kempe, said to be the first autobiography composed in the English language and one which offers a rare look at middle-class existence during those medieval times.
The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is a play regarding the lady that John Wulp wrote in 1958. It enjoyed a brief run Off Broadway a year later. In addition to being a playwright, the 90-year-old Wulp is a veteran producer, scenic designer, director and artist who intermittently pops up in New York theater circles; he probably remains best known for producing the celebrated 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula that starred Frank Langella and featured striking black-and-white settings by Edward Gorey.
According to the author’s note in the program for the current revival of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe at The Duke on 42nd Street, the play was rediscovered by Austin Pendleton, who directs this production. “It tells the story of a woman who did not want her life to be defined either by men or by the strictures of her society,” Wulp’s note continues. “The gap between her ambitions and her ability embodies the entire human condition.”
That statement seems a trifle highfalutin for what proves to be a so-what story about a willful soul whose selfish pursuit of personal significance drives others to distraction.
Initially the free-spirited Margery deserts her spouse and six children to plunge into the brewery business, which promises to offer carefree times. When that enterprise goes sour, Margery reluctantly returns home to hear her husband piously observe that “only the saints are free from the cares that beset more earthbound souls like you and me.” A calculating expression passes across Margery’s face and soon she begins describing heavenly visions.
These revelations unfortunately do not excite the local clerics. What liberates Margery from her humdrum life is a potentially fatal accident in a church. Margery’s escape from serious injury is proclaimed to be a miracle. Claiming that incident as a saintly cred, Margery embarks on a trek to Jerusalem where her tearful holy rolling maddens fellow pilgrims and the local authorities. Eventually Margery awakens to the error of her thinking.
A series of brief, sketchy scenes, The Saintliness of Margery Kempe is neither a Monty Python-esque spoof of a darker age nor an amusing character study of an obstreperous individual. It is merely a mildly facetious comedy about a self-centered woman whose personal dramas endear her to no one other than a long-suffering spouse.
Overlong at two acts and nearly two hours, the spotty play benefits from the sort of good, solid acting that typically characterizes so many of Pendleton’s productions. A cheerful Andrus Nichols depicts Margery with scheming eyes and beatific stares. Jason O’Connell is funny as Margery’s dullard of a husband and later even funnier as a harried tour guide. Seven other actors neatly depict several characters each; most prominent among them are Michael Genet, who grandly rolls his rrrrs as a bishop, Pippa Pearthree as a tart-tongued widow, and Thomas Sommo as a disgruntled draft horse. Modest yet apt costumes designed by Barbara A. Bell are helpful to the actors’ various impersonations. Wulp’s scenery appears as sketchy as his writing but gets the visual job done.
The playwright never tips his toque whether Margery is sincerely deluded or simply a charlatan, but Pendleton’s sly direction of the actors suggests that the lady is a scamp.