Ataste of historical gossip explored at Greenbelt theater
13 Jul 2016
Written by Andrea Blackstone
– Prince Georgians who want to try their hand at acting, or those who enjoy seeing eclectic performances, can find a host of productions in theater venues all around the county.
From the Publick Playhouse, located in Cheverly, to the Laurel Mill Playhouse in Laurel, to the Greenbelt Arts Center, located at 123 Centerway in the Greenbelt Historic District, live entertainment is available close to home.
On a mild summer night, Beatrix Whitehall, who has lived in Prince George’s County since 1972, swiftly moved props around at the Greenbelt Arts Center in between scenes of a play called “The Eaton Woman.” The cast, dressed in styles of the 1800s, pulled attendees into the story of history’s famous Petticoat Affair. The two-act dramedy by Anthony E. Gallo, who is the author of 20 plays, revisits controversy, women’s roles in Washington society, morality and the sobering reality that gossip is nothing new.
When President Andrew Jackson appointed John Henry Eaton as his Secretary of War, the ladies of Washington society ostracized Eaton and his new wife, the beautiful Margaret “Peggy” Eaton. The outspoken and flirtatious woman married her second husband less than year of mourning her first, who died unexpectedly. John and Margaret were rumored to have had an affair when Margaret was still married to John Timberlake. Thereafter, scandalous gossip took on a life of its own.
“Frankly, this play, I think, because it is history – but a little-known piece of history – there is nothing abrasive or offensive. I think it would be good for everybody,” said Whitehall, the director of the play.
Although directing is a fairly recent theatrical endeavor for Whitehall, she has been participating in community theater for approximately 35 years and was one of the founders of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Whitehall is involved with three different theater groups, including Seventh Street Playhouse, which is the other presenter of “The Eaton Woman.”
“Theater is a creative outlet. It gives me scope. It gives me a way to communicate with people. It gives me a way to do something outside of the normal confines of my life,” Whitehall said. “I’m recently retired from the Public Defender’s Office. I was (a lawyer who worked) in juvenile court for over 26 years, and actually acting and that sort of thing tied right into each other, because being in court is very often like being on stage without a script.”
Whitehall said seeing “The Eaton Woman” come together was rewarding for her. Rehearsals started in late April.
Penny Martin, who plays one of the prominent, gossiping women in the play, has been in approximately 100 productions over a 20-year period. The Prince George’s County resident said she initially thought she could not do theater because she had a hard time memorizing anything at all when she was younger. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she learned she could memorize lines.
Martin also likes exploring her creative side.
“I like being different people,” Martin said. “I get to be myself every day, but sometimes I get to be other people. Sometimes I get to be people I really detest. I think it’s a way of walking for a mile in another person’s shoes.”
Margaret Bagley and her husband, Grant, have been married for 55 years. They moved to Prince George’s County the year they officially became a couple. The active retirees also act in “The Eaton Woman.”
“We learned to work here, we learned to raise a family here, we learned everything we know here, and now we’re learning how to enjoy life and do the things that we never thought we could,” Grant said. “Prince George’s County is a friendly place to do these things. It’s more acceptable. It’s not as competitive.
“You can try things and say, ‘Gee, I’m trying this for the first time,’ and people will accept it, and it’s not as threatening. It’s a wonderful community because it offers us those opportunities, and it offers opportunities that a lot of people just don’t realize, because they don’t come and look at us here.”
“The Eaton Woman” will run at the Greenbelt Arts Center through July 17. Please visit www.greenbeltartscenter.org for ticket information.
GAC's The Eaton Woman:
An Allegory for the Times?
by Carol Griffith
Ever wonder if our nation has ever experienced anything like this year’s election situation? Well, the answer is yes: the events following the election of President Andrew Jackson were even more acrimonious, as dramatized in the current play at the Greenbelt Arts Center (GAC).
The Eaton Woman, Anthony Gallo’s latest creation, tackles big issues with intelligence, a bit of religion and much talent.
Around the time of his inauguration, Jackson’s beloved wife Rachel died. Although he had a niece to assist him with social functions in the White House and as boisterous as those events could be, Jackson relied on the new wife of his friend and now his Secretary of War, Peggy Eaton. Polite Washington society was aghast as Mrs. Eaton was accused of having extramarital affairs, an illegitimate child or two, and being the cause of her first husband’s suicide, among other things. While those accusations would hardly cause a yawn today, the fallout for Jackson was immense and is the plot of the play.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is the character of Peggy Eaton as Gallo has interpreted her. As the scandal about her position with Jackson rages, she says and does some – even by today’s standards – outrageous things, yet toward the end of her life moralizes about the very things of which she was accused. Was she trying to atone for her sins with her pious platitudes or warning others not to do as she had done?
Gallo is especially talented at weaving historical facts and background into a play that moves quickly and crisply. Ably directed by GAC’s own Beatrix Whitehall and impeccably acted and costumed, The Eaton Woman is a real treat.
On every level, The Eaton Woman shows us that our nation has survived other political crises and that there is hope for our future.
Gallo is director of the Seventh Street Playhouse. Among his recent productions at GAC include Eugenio, about Rome’s chief rabbi during WWII, Vandergrift!, which dealt with union organizing during the Gilded Age, and two plays about Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln and God and The Springfield Boys.
The Eaton Woman will play at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings, July 15 and 16, and on Sunday, July 17 at 2 p.m. Reservations may be made through the box office at 301-441-8770 or online. The GAC is located at 123 Centerway, beneath the Coop supermarket.