The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, by John Wulp—Saint or Diva?

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Jason O'Connell and Andrus Nichols (foreground) with Micheal Genet, Timothy Doyle and Thomas Sommo in “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” directed by Austin Pendleton at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo © Carol Rosegg

Jason O’Connell and Andrus Nichols (foreground) with Micheal Genet, Timothy Doyle and Thomas Sommo in “The Saintliness of Margery Kempe” directed by Austin Pendleton at The Duke on 42nd Street. Photo © Carol Rosegg

Saint or Diva?

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe
by John Wulp
directed by Austin Pendleton
at the Duke on 42nd Street until August 26

Margery Kempe, as portrayed by the excellent, feisty Andrus Nichols, would indeed try the patience of a saint. Nichols, part of the splendid cast of The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, plays the title role which is loosely based on the real fourteenth century woman who wrote what is often considered the first English language autobiography, abandons her husband and six children, (the real Kempe had fourteen), to find herself in the larger world. 

She first buys a brewery, but the beer produced is terrible, and the men who frequent the inn where it’s served assume she’s for sale as well. Putting that behind her, Kempe convinces herself she’s a saint and decides she will convince others by making a miracle. That doesn’t fly so well either but she manages to talk her way into a journey to the Holy Land led by Friar Bonadventure, a wonderful Jason O’Connell who also plays Kempe’s husband and other parts. On “tour,” Kempe’s behavior, especially her penchant for bursting into frequent tears, drive her fellow travelers wild. At the end of what would be an even more entertaining production were it somewhat shorter, Kempe returns home, theoretically to resume a more ordinary life but it’s clear this won’t last as she has decided her life has been so fabulous her adventures must be made into a book. 

Director Austin Pendleton has remounted the work as originally produced by Poet’s Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1958. (It had a brief off-Broadway run in 1959.) The cast also includes Vance Quincy Barton, La Tonya Borsay, Timothy Doyle, Michael Genet, Ginger Grace, Pippa Pearthree and Thomas Sommo, all in multiple roles enhanced by clever costuming that suggests medieval wear by Barbara A. Bell. John Wulp, the author, is also credited with the “scenery” that could have been a bit less barebones. 

The play is talky, funny and energetic although it comes down to a picaresque venture that doesn’t impart meaning deeper than a look at a woman who rails against having her life defined by men. What’s new? 

Historically, there are many inaccuracies, among them that Kempe’s sainthood was never acknowledged. but writer John Wulp has chosen to milk his characters in a sort of medieval “Laugh In.” There is too much repetition—we get Kempe’s nutty determination early on—although some of the performances, especially Sommo’s as the horse, Pegasus, offended by the contents of his nosebag, and Doyle’s as a local friar trying hard to tend his roses while Kempe insists she will make a miracle, are splendid.

Although entertaining much of the time, the play lacks substance. Despite the good performances, it comes off as a series of vignettes with a lot of nudge-nudge/wink-wink—a caper that could have been a real gallop. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were gritty; as seen in Saintliness, they come off more as froth. Beer indeed; we are told to drink pink lemonade.

About the author

Mari S. Gold

Mari S. Gold is a freelance writer who contributes to many magazines and websites. Her blog, But I Digress… , on cultural events, travel, food  and other topics is at She lives in New York City.

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