With an urgency befitting these tumultuous political times, the actress Vivian Nesbitt hightailed back to Maine this week to open “Mother Jones in Heaven,” a one-woman musical about the influential labor organizer of a century ago, whom one judge deemed “the most dangerous woman in America” because of her ability to rally workers.
The musical, directed by Alice Jankell with musical accompaniment on guitar by Nesbitt’s husband, John Dillon, opens Thursday and runs through Sunday at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. The Portland performance is part of a national tour that Nesbitt and Dillon just launched and a homecoming of sorts for Nesbitt, who has appeared on the TV shows “Breaking Bad,” “Longmire” and many others. She graduated as a history major from now-closed Nasson College in Springvale in 1980, spent summers growing up in New Hampshire and has family on Bailey Island. “We always came over and spent time in Kennebunkport and Kennebunk and up to Freeport. Back then, L.L. Bean was (atop) a rickety staircase in a rickety building. I fell in love with the coastline, and I fell in love with the interior lakes as well,” she said. “I have very fond relationships with Maine, and we still come every year.”
This year, she is coming to work.
She and her husband have been talking about touring with “Mother Jones in Heaven” for several years. Nesbitt has always admired the play’s lead character, Mary Harris Jones, who helped organize workers and fought for better working conditions and fair wages for coal miners, mill workers and others. She campaigned for the United Mine Workers Union, founded the Social Democratic Party and helped establish the Industrial Workers of the World.
The topic blended perfectly with Nesbitt’s academics at Nasson, where she studied the impact of the industrial revolution on the human workforce. “Mother Jones was in the middle of all of that,” Nesbitt said. “She was a boots-on-the-ground eyewitness to the changes that were happening in this country, as mechanism and capitalism started taking hold.”
After the election of Donald Trump as president, their work became urgent, she said. “On election night, John and I looked at each other in equal parts horror and equal parts excitement, and said, ‘We need to get this show on the road right away.'”
They contacted Si Kahn, a modern-day folk troubadour who writes populist anthems to highlight social injustices and who endorsed their efforts. Nesbitt and Dillon workshopped the play last fall at Advice to the Players in Sandwich, New Hampshire, and began touring with it this summer.
Nesbitt and Dillon collaborate for the radio program, “Art of the Song,” which is nationally syndicated on 120 radio stations. In addition to her career on TV, Nesbitt has acted on Broadway, off Broadway and in regional theaters.
The musical opens when Mother Jones arrives in heaven, which happens to look very much like her favorite bar. She holds court for 65 minutes, recounting her life, telling stories and imparting wisdom with humor and insight. The score includes 10 songs written by Kahn.
There are many moments in the play when Nesbitt’s character is talking about the past, but the conditions sounds like the present-day America with stagnate wages for workers and more wealth for the super-rich. “When she talks about the rich men who run this country who are now trying to destroy what they call the ‘enemy within’ – the unions, the radicals – there are moments when I feel like we are talking about current times and current news cycles,” she said. I am dressed in a late-Victorian costume and talking from the Mother Jones perspective, but it could be the present.”
Dillon said the play has emboldened people to take action and work for change. “People say the play gives them hope and serves as a warning, that we’d better do something,” he said. “People say it inspires them to take action: ‘To see what one woman could do in her lifetime inspires me to go out and try to do something.’ ”
WHERE: St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS & INFO: $25 to $32; 207-775-1248 or stlawrencearts.org