Mother Jones. That name, if it’s recognized at all these days, is best known for the left-leaning magazine that bears it.
But Mother Jones—the sobriquet of Irish-American union activist Mary Harris Jones—was once a household name, alternately praised and vilified for her lifetime commitment to workers’ rights in the factories and mines of America.
Those causes, and more, are the primary focus of a rousing new play by folksinger-playwright Si Kahn. In Mother Jones in Heaven, running through May 18 at Main Stage West, Kahn has accomplished two notable things: giving voice to this somewhat forgotten historical figure, and crafting the perfect vehicle for actor-singer Mary Gannon Graham. As Mother Jones, Graham is sensational, adding another indelible character to a growing list (Patsy Cline, Shirley Valentine) that the Sebastopol actress has claimed as her own in recent years.
Set in a whiskey bar somewhere in the clouds of paradise, the play begins with Mother Jones expressing surprise at having ended up in heaven. She’s worried that she might be lonely without all her old activist friends, who’d spent their lives being told they were headed straight for hell.
Not only does Mother Jones have company, she gets free whiskey and beer whenever she wants it, and a full-on Irish folk band (led by Jim Peterson) to back her up whenever she feels like bursting into song. For Mother Jones, Kahn has written a dozen or so original songs (maybe two more than necessary), nicely underscoring Jones’ emotional life with words and music ranging from the playful and sweet to the heartbroken and angry.
The show unfolds as a series of loosely connected stories from Jones’ life. Especially powerful is her story of losing her husband and four children to yellow fever. That loss was an overwhelming source of grief, which fueled Mary Jones’ passion for sticking up for the poor, the hard-hit and the underserved. Graham relates this and other tales with a skill and emotional honesty that is at times utterly breathtaking.
Directed by Beth Craven with sensitivity and some strategically placed whimsy, Mother Jones in Heaven has very little actual plot, but plenty of power. Before it’s over, audiences might find themselves longing for the Great Beyond themselves, just so they could seek out this legend and share a whiskey or two with her.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½