Jackie Kennedy seems to be a source of endless fascination for the American public – from her iconic Oleg Cassini gowns preserved at the Smithsonian and countless biographies to 2016’s Jackie, which starred Natalie Portman as the First Lady during the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination.
With Jackie Unveiled, now making its world premiere at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, she gets the theatrical treatment with Mozart in the Jungle’s Saffron Burrows stepping into her shoes. The production is a one-woman show and it wisely avoids setting its primary action around the well-trod days of Jackie and Jack Kennedy’s romance, the “Camelot” administration, and the horrific day Kennedy was murdered. All of those moments are touched upon, of course, but in flickers of memory and flashback in a non-linear meandering through Jackie’s mind.
The play is structured around two key moments in Jackie’s life: the night her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968, and an evening in 1994 when a 60-something Jackie awaits a phone call from her doctor regarding her cancer diagnosis. From these two moments of crisis, Jackie struggles to deal with the moment at hand, while walking the audience through memories of Jack, her children, her parents, and more.
Playwright Tom Dugan constructed the play from a combination of interviews with Jackie’s friends, innumerable biographies, CIA records, and more. But, ultimately, when setting out to construct the private emotional life of a woman who was notoriously private and obsessed with preserving a particular image (this is the woman who crafted the myth of “Camelot” after all), it can’t help but feel that a lot of the more shocking details and utterances of the play are dramatic over-exaggerations to drive home a point about the grand tragedy of Jackie’s life. Dugan plays with truth and the nature of public image throughout with varying degrees of success.
Early on, Jackie makes an astute comment about the benefits of hindsight, but even with this level of self-awareness, the play can’t help falling into that trap. The audience’s own hindsight is used to build tension and eschew more nuanced dramatic development. This is particularly notable in the first act when Jackie spirals in the hours following Bobby’s death and comes to the brink of committing suicide. We all know she won’t do it, so the dramatic thrust of that choice comes off as slightly overwrought.
Things really start to sing in the second act when we see an older version of Jackie – a woman who was more removed from the public eye. Without the burden of icon, we get to see who Jackie really is and sink into the more intimate tragedies of her life rather than those that feel ripped from a Greek drama. Dugan wisely leaves her recollections of Dallas and the assassination for this half of the action. While some of Jackie’s jumps into memory where she plays both herself and her partner-in-conversation feel a bit stilted, here Jackie’s story of Nov. 22, 1963 is a haunting journey through her emotional sense memory that packs a wallop as we near the play’s conclusion.
The production is carried on the shoulders of its only actor – Saffron Burrows, kitted out in an over-the-top wig that looks like it’s eating her head in act one and a silk headscarf that signals Jackie’s cancer before she even opens her mouth in act two. Burrows is superb in the role, mastering the blend of strength and vulnerability that made Jackie Kennedy Onassis a compelling and mysterious figure in American history. With the assistance of costume and makeup, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Jackie, and though the signature Transatlantic accent is jarring at first, Burrows eventually slips effortlessly into it. Through no fault of her own, Natalie Portman could simply not overcome her movie stardom in Jackie – despite an excellent performance, you never could quite forget you were watching Natalie Portman do Jackie Kennedy. Here, that level of remove is absent. Burrows seems to channel the very soul and essence of Jackie. After the first few moments, her mannerisms, her posture, her mode of speaking, all of it makes you feel like the First Lady has been reincarnated here before you.
Carrying a one-woman show is a stunning accomplishment in any context, but doing so when the subject is one of the 20th century’s most beloved public figures is another thing entirely. Burrows rises to the challenge and then, in the second act, exceeds it. It’s a shame the writing isn’t stronger in some places because she delivers a Jackie Kennedy for the ages. B