Robin Gerber’s one-woman play “The Shot,” about longtime Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham — which is currently being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — starts with a scene showing her as a retired octogenarian, accepting a lifetime achievement award from the nonprofit organization, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She talks a little about her career and touches on some highlights, including the Post’s presidency-rocking Watergate coverage, and its publishing — along with The New York Times — of the Pentagon Papers.
“Some of you may be too young to know this,” she says, “but our actions most likely contributed to the ending of the Vietnam War.” She also mentions that she was the first woman to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
“But as I look back,” she adds, “I find that I don’t dwell on those successes.”
The lights go out. And when they come back on, we are transported away from that stuffy gala dinner, and Graham, as played by Sharon Lawrence, becomes her younger self. Most of the Michelle Joyner-directed “The Shot” — a one-act, 75-minute monologue that takes place on a minimally furnished set (a desk, a couple of chairs, a door and not much more) — is concerned with Graham’s life before she assumed control of the Post, in 1963, when she was in her mid-40s. It shows her, not just as the steely executive she became, but, more often, as a sometimes insecure young girl and an affluent suburban housewife with a distant, difficult mother and a complicated relationship with her husband, Philip Graham.
She is charmed by him at first, and flattered by this handsome, confident, worldly man’s attention: Lawrence instantaneously transforms herself from an elder statesman into a giddy girl. But we see how cruel Philip can be when Katharine describes the first time they have sex. It’s a warning sign that goes unheeded. They marry, have four children and live, by outward appearances, a fairy-tale Washington, D.C. life. Philip runs the Post and hobnobs with politicians, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But he drinks heavily, is unfaithful, struggles with mental illness, and becomes physically abusive. She never stops loving him. But behind the the façade they build together, things go from bad to worse.
I expected to learn a lot about Katharine Graham from this play, and I did. But I didn’t expect to be so moved by her story. And the audience at the show I saw seemed to be similarly caught up in the action, hanging on every word.
“The Shot” — which was written in 2017 and presented in a full production for the first time, last year — is based on Gerber’s 2005 book, “Katharine Graham: The Leadership Journey of an American Icon.” Graham also has told her life story in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 autobiography, “Personal History,” which earned praise for its unflinching honesty. “Kay Graham has lived in a world so circumscribed that her candor and forthrightness are all the more affecting,” wrote Nora Ephron in her review of “Personal History” for The New York Times.
The same goes for this play. Lawrence, sporting Graham’s signature helmet-like haircut, speaks with an air of upper-class elegance and projects a sense of calm composure, like Graham always did. But that only makes the glimpses of confusion and vulnerability she shows more heartbreaking.
Katharine Graham’s father bought The Washington Post when she was a teenager, and journalism seems to run deep in her blood. She worked on student newspapers and became a professional journalist after graduating from college, before she married Philip Graham. At one point, when she is talking about The Washington Post, she says that “the first duty that it carries, to tell the truth, is my sacred trust.”
The greatest thing about “The Shot” is that, in it, we see Katharine Graham extending that sacred trust to her own life, and telling the truth about it, no matter how difficult. It’s painful but liberating to watch such a regal figure dive so deeply into the depths of her own suffering — and emerge from it as a wiser, more compassionate version of herself — and this makes for a unique and memorable theatrical experience.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch presents “The Shot” through April 23. Visit njrep.org.
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