She has already staged a play about 20th century theater director Hallie Flanagan and another about photographer Tina Modotti, and now local playwright Claudia McGarry is joining excerpts from her previous works with a new play featuring three remarkable women from the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Maria Callas, and Lee Radziwill. These sections combined make “These Complicated Women,” a live reading at Center Stage Theater on January 25.
The reading of Ms. McGarry’s play will feature music by her husband Paul McGarry and will be directed by Jordana Lawrence, who the playwright previously collaborated with on her play “Kiddo and Patty Hearst.” In an interview with the News-Press, Ms. Lawrence said she was fascinated by the women Ms. McGarry selected for “These Complicated Women.” While she had heard of First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis, her sister Lee Radziwill, and opera singer Maria Callas, she wasn’t familiar with Hallie Flanagan or Tina Modotti before Ms. McGarry wrote “Hallie” and “Modotti and Weston,” the plays from which she drew to create “These Complicated Women.”
“Until I got involved with Claudia and started reading her scripts, I had never heard of either one of those ladies,” Ms. Lawrence said.
Just as she learned of Ms. Flanagan and Ms. Modotti from Ms. McGarry’s writing, the director hopes the live reading informs more people about these women, who she described as ladies that “people don’t really know but should.”
Ms. McGarry first wrote “Hallie” and “Modotti and Weston” as screenplays. The latter was optioned but never produced into a movie, so the writer decided to recreate the story in play format. She did likewise for “Hallie,” both were staged, and both ended up playing so well that Ms. McGarry wanted to present them once again, only abbreviated and joined by an additional third section.The subject of the new section presented itself to Ms. McGarry when she saw the Maria Callas documentary “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words.” Before watching the film, Ms. McGarry didn’t know about the love triangle between Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Maria Callas,and Greek shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis. As Ms. McGarry learned, in 1968 Ms. Callas was shocked to find out that Mr. Onassis, who she thought was her boyfriend, was suddenly marrying Ms. Kennedy.
The third section of “These Complicated Women” is a fantasy piece set in heaven, where Ms. Kennedy Onassis hashes out her differences with Ms. Callas as well as her sister Lee Radziwill, who spent much of her life living in Ms. Kennedy’s shadow. While all three were famous, successful women, the more Ms. McGarry learned about them she found that their lives were beset by tragedy, as they each had sons who died before they did.
“I was amazed when I researched Jackie, Lee, and Maria, the tragedy of it,” Ms. McGarry said.
A tragic personal life is similarly what attracted Ms. McGarry to the life of Hallie Flanagan. A playwright and theater director, Ms. Flanagan was chosen by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to direct the Federal Theater Project, which put on theater productions as part of the Works Progress Administration that provided jobs to Americans during the Great Depression. Deeply shaken when her husband and older son died, Ms. Flanagan coped with the loss by throwing herself into her theater career. However, her love of theater took priority over her remaining son, who eventually committed suicide due to her years of neglect. Whereas the play about Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Maria Callas, and Lee Radziwill is a fantasy that references historical facts, Ms. McGarry described the Hallie Flanagan and Tina Modotti sections as “living newspaper stories.” The former is based around testimony that Ms. Flanagan gave in Washington D.C. after she and her work through the FTP was suspected of espousing communist messages.
In the show’s second section pulled from “Modotti and Weston,” the central character Tina Modotti’s political leanings are front-and-center, as well as something for which she makes great sacrifices. An immigrant from Italy, Ms. Modottti became well known for her photographs of indigenous people from Mexico, where she traveled to with her lover Edward Weston. Ms. Modotti was a member of the Communist Party and the play revolves around her relationship with Mr. Weston, who leaves her and Mexico because he doesn’t share her political passion. After splitting with Mr. Weston, Ms. Modotti got accused of killing one of her other lovers, communist activist Julio Mella. The anti-communist Mexican government arrested her and told her that she would be banished from Mexico unless she renounced her ideology. Ms. Modotti chose not to comply and was exiled to Berlin.
By watching the tragic lives of the famous ladies featured in “These Complicated Women,” Ms. McGarry hopes the difficulties experienced by women through the years comes into stark focus for the audience.
“I really want the audience to come to an understanding of just how difficult life can be for women,” she said. “These Complicated Women” will have two readings on January 25, one at 3 p.m. and another at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at www.centerstagetheater.org. Center Stage Theater is located at 751 Paseo Nuevo.