CAMBRIDGE — Cassandra, in Greek myth, was a prophet, but when she spoke, no one believed her. In 1990, Peter Kurth published “American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson,” a biography of the noted American journalist who interviewed Hitler in 1931, was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934, and in 1936 initiated a syndicated newspaper column that was read by more than 10 million people. She was also a radio commentator for NBC, and in 1939 she made the cover of Time magazine. Now she’s the subject of Norman Plotkin’s “Cassandra Speaks,” a one-woman vehicle starring Tod Randolph, presented by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater.
Plotkin’s play was actually written for Randolph; the two had been friends in New York. Plotkin died in 2010, but “Cassandra Speaks” got its world premiere from Shakespeare & Company in 2012, with Randolph in the title role and Nicole Ricciardi directing, as she does for Nora.
The date is June 16, 1943, and Thompson is 90 minutes away from her third wedding, to the Vienna-born artist Maxim Kopf. She’s already been married to a Hungarian, Joseph Bard, and, more famously, to the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. As the lights go up, she’s at her typewriter in her house in Vermont, trying to finish her column before the ceremony, but she doesn’t get much done. The phone keeps ringing. Her best friend, Rose Wilder Lane (daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the “Little House” books), is sick and can’t come to the wedding. She’s trying to reach Lewis, to whom she feels a need to talk. And of course she has to tell the audience her life story.
Patrick Brennan’s set gives a good preview of that story. Thompson’s capacious desk accommodates her Underwood, her black rotary phone, a framed photo of Maxim, the current issue of Time, a stack of books including Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” and some Western Union telegrams. There are yellow legal pads everywhere, oranges and orange rinds, packs of Lucky Strikes, and ashtrays with cigarette butts. (Thompson never lights up, however.) A coffee table in front of a French provincial sofa holds a smaller typewriter. Crumpled papers litter the rug and floor, along with a purse and a pair of high heels that she keeps putting on and then taking off.
But Plotkin’s heroine is a two-dimensional figure who’s constantly inviting the audience to congratulate her for seeing through Hitler before Roosevelt or anyone else did. She’s more engaging when she talks about her husbands, especially Lewis, though even that relationship is reduced to his drinking versus her career. Her affair with novelist and playwright Christa Winsloe, on the other hand, is barely hinted at. She never mentions her Ladies’ Home Journal column; the evening is an hour old before we hear that she and Lewis have a son. She tells us straight off, “I’m not a nice woman. I’m a driven woman.” Then she spends the next 90 minutes (no intermission) asking us to love her.
With gray hair done up in a bun, Randolph, a longtime Shakespeare & Company actress, bears a considerable resemblance to Thompson, and she gives the accomplished performance you’d expect. She’s giddy, even girlish, when the subject is love; she’s mischievous when she pulls out Lewis’s Nobel medal, saying, “He doesn’t know where it is!” For a good part of “Cassandra Speaks,” though, Randolph is an overwrought voice crying in the wilderness. Thompson surely had more to say than that.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.