It was 1847. James Polk was president. The Mexican-American War was raging. Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë published “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” respectively.
And the United States Supreme Court, in a case titled Barry v. Mercein, ruled that Eliza Mercein Barry, of New York, could retain custody of her 10-year-old daughter, even though her husband, from whom she was separated, wanted the child to come live with him in Nova Scotia, Canada.
It is considered a landmark women’s rights decision. But Eliza Barry’s great-great-great-grandniece, Jenny Mercein, was unaware of it for most of her life. That is, until an ex-boyfriend who happened to be attending law school came across the case and, after noticing that the defendant’s unusual maiden name was the same as Jenny’s last name, told her about it.
In Jenny Mercein’s one-woman play “Two Elizas,” which is currently making its world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange, she tells her ancestor’s story — which she learned from letters and law documents and fleshed out, to some extent, with her own imagination — interwoven with stories from her own life. She also reads a powerful poem, written by Barry, that she discovered in the course of doing her research.
“Two Elizas” is very funny at times, and moving at others. Co-directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet and Ryder Thornton, it has the feel of a heart-to-heart conversation, even though Mercein is doing all the talking.
Jenny Mercein’s life story, and that of Eliza Mercein Barry — “a bright young woman with a fierce attachment to her family,” in Jenny’s words — are far from identical. But they touch on enough of the same subjects — including marriage, motherhood, and loss — to make them fit together well.
Both women disappoint their relatives by staying unmarried well into their child-bearing years. (Mercein generates a lot of the show’s humor by describing her missteps on the way to finding Mr. Right). Both yearn for children and feel their biological clock ticking before finding their husbands. And both have unpleasant experiences after making a move to accommodate their spouses: Eliza, when she reluctantly leaves New York to live in Nova Scotia with her husband and his children from a previous marriage; Jenny Mercein, when she relocates with her husband to Santa Barbara, where he was pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California.
Jenny talks about her life — and transforms herself into Eliza and various people who were part of Eliza’s life — on a minimally furnished circular stage, with an elegant work of abstract art on the back wall. (The set design is by Jack Golden). Incidental cello music — composed by Maxim Samarov and played by Amanda Duffin — also adds to the refined atmosphere. Mercein wears a dress that struck me as a bit old-fashioned — the kind of thing you could imagine Eliza wearing — though she didn’t make a big deal about it or even draw any attention to it.
There are lots of quick shifts in this show, from one era to the other, and with various characters — whom Mercein gives different voices, and mannerisms — chiming in. But it is never hard to follow the story or figure out what is going on. The show was nearly 80 minutes, and I never felt my attention slipping; others in the audience appeared to be hanging on every word as well. Such a lengthy monologue can be challenging for any actor, but Mercein made it look effortless.
This is an intensely personal work of art. Yet Mercein also ties it in with the current state of the United States — with its “very different Supreme Court,” as she puts it. But she touches on this only briefly, and not in a heavy-handed way.
“Yet I retain hope,” she soon adds, before, moments later, as the show is nearing its end, expressing “gratitude for the generations of women who have imprinted resilience in my DNA.”
Luna Stage presents “Two Elizas” through May 14. Visit lunastage.org.
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