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A pitch-perfect peek at a pivotal women's rights moment

When I heard that Jeannine Grizzard had shown up in full period garb as Emmeline Pankhurst at a recent rally for women’s rights in Ashland, I was intrigued. It was clear that Ms. Grizzard had caught a serious Method bug and that she was, to say the least, fully immersed in her work on “Pankhurst: Freedom or Death,” a play about the legendary leader of the British suffragette movement and political activist. So, despite Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s patchy production history, I went to see the play this Sunday last, the final performance in the show’s run. It’s not an overstatement to say that this particular piece of work is a major tour de force, and one that has — with the exception of some directorial assistance from Peggy Rubin — landed squarely on the shoulders of Grizzard, who wrote, produced, and acted in the one-woman show, as well as doing all of the set design, poster design and the majority of the publicity. Let’s start with the script. Grizzard has delivered a text that is extraordinarily detailed and historically accurate, bringing in real-life characters from the Pankhurst era that are well-formed and remarkably informative under her authorship. Such luminary period figures as Winston and Clementine Churchill (herself a strong supporter of the suffragette movement), Constance Lytton, and Herbert Asquith (the lecherous Prime Minister of the Edwardian Era) are showcased, among others. What might have come off as a wonkish drill-down into a period of social and political turmoil that has been of little interest to most Americans turns into a damned entertaining afternoon of performance thanks to Grizzard’s detailed, smart and carefully researched analysis. As far as the performance itself goes, Grizzard is an impressive actor, who should be spending more time in front of the lights instead of behind them. Her plummy, upper-class English accent is absolutely correct; she doesn’t slip into a garbled Americanized version at any point in the show. In fact, she tries on a variety of subtle accents from across the English class system with very little trouble, a success which can most likely be attributed to her long personal history with that sceptered isle and study at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Her work here is a credit to her subject, and she wades through acres of dialogue with no trouble at all, keeping the audience engaged and enthused throughout the process. Grizzard’s Pankhurst rants, sermonizes, harangues and coaxes. At times she weeps; at others, she raiseS her arms triumphantly as she scores a rare win. Grizzard also launches herself into asides as various male and female members of the British Establishment and Parliament — essentially the same core group — and really gets the tone of condescension and exclusive social formality that is a hallmark of the Oxbridge set. There are particularly moving moments that deal with hunger strikes by women involved in the cause. Such strikes were “remedied” by force feeding that for all accounts and purposes amounted to a form of rape. These brutal moments are exceptionally well characterized by Grizzard as an author and as an actor. The result is a real sense of what the suffragettes had to endure, for what would now be considered an absurdly obvious right. This is the best thing that ACT has done to date and is a step in the right direction for a company that has been attempting to break free of the community theater label. As with her work on “A Room of One’s Own” and “Eleanor Roosevelt: Her Secret Journey,” Grizzard again proves that she is at her absolute best when telling stories of strong women in situations that are fraught with complexities. If “Pankhurst” is any indication of what ACT might have in store for us in the future, count me in. — Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.