Fanny Kemble is known for being a celebrated British actress in her early 19th-century youth and again toward middle age. But it was her difficult maturing process in the interim that provided the meaty part of published journals that gained her greater fame. That also is the subject of Unbound, by Laura Marks, which is being staged by URI Theatre through May 2.
The daughter of a famous acting family, at 20 Fanny first appeared onstage at London’s Covent Garden as a Juliet popular enough to save her father/manager from financial ruin. Five years later, in 1834, having continued to prove captivating in Shakespearean roles, she married an American who was pursuing her while she and her father were touring here.
The Pierce Butler (Benjamin M.S. Grills) we meet here is a smitten but dignified young man who plies her with daily flowers and charming sentiments until she is swayed. He is an independently wealthy Southern aristocrat, and the fact that he is supported by money from slaveholding plantations doesn’t trouble her. But soon he inherits a plantation with 800 slaves on one of the Georgia Sea Islands, and she can no longer deny the fact that her comfort is at the expense of the suffering of others.
This is nominally a memory play, so the older Fanny who is looking back on her life is played by Stephanie Rodger, and the young Fanny is played by Jolie Lippincott. Actually, there are three ensemble Fannys (Nora Eschenheimer, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Jennifer Michaels). Playwright Marks has specified that some lines be said by the older Fanny, to frame the story, but otherwise has left it to the director, here Bryna Wortman, to distribute the young woman’s dialogue.
The understandable immaturity of Fanny in her late teens is economically and insightfully established, such as by her mother (Margaret Kane) telling her before an audition: “All they ask of a young girl is that she be audible and charming.” Similarly, she is ironically both immensely popular and dubious marriageable material, which is established in a brief mid-Atlantic exchange. Two giddy American teenagers admiringly recognize her. But when she says she assumes they are aspiring actresses, one of them says that oh no, then they could never expect a proposal.
Lippincott gives Fanny a lively appeal, and both the playwright and Grills make Pierce truly a gentleman, a considerate man even in their later disputes, not merely someone she settled for. That makes the couple’s conflict all the more poignant when it finally arises.
Four years after they marry, Pierce finally succumbs to her imploring and allows her to accompany him on a trip to his plantation. They are there together for only a few months, the winter of 1838-39, though the duration isn’t specified in the play. In that time, Fanny witnesses disturbing mistreatment of their human property but is unable to do much about it.
Enforcing discipline and proper work habits is Mr. Oden (Corey Crew), the literal slavedriver. Again, Marks doesn’t write him as a stereotype, even having him say that he hates slavery, which will someday disappear. Fanny does see the aftermath of unnecessary cruelty, such as a woman whipped for talking to her, and others sent back to the fields immediately after giving birth. As her husband points out, she was not an abolitionist before she married him, but the plantation visit inevitably drives a wedge between them. They separate, and 10 years later they divorce.