Dallas — Margo Jones is one hot mess. A brilliant one, it turns out.
She’s talking loud and proud in her honeyed Texas drawl about her storied seasons of great live theater at Theatre ’55—which began as Theatre ’47—a game-changing concept of bringing work by brilliant new playwrights and classics to regions other than New York City. “You can bet your britches you’re gonna see great theater here tonight,” she tells the opening night audience at the Margo Jones Theater, referring to the very space we now occupy in her opening salvo. It’s 1955, and Margo explains that she changes the venue’s name for every terrific season completed. She chain-smokes Camels and knocks back her bourbon straight from the bottle, with barely a shiver. This hard-drinking woman, a slender, petite figure in black slacks and red shoes, is clearly driven.
Let Me Talk My Dreams is a 55-minute, one-woman show written and performed with confident zeal by Ana Hagedorn, the newest member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Brierley Resident Company and a recent graduate of the MFA program at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts Division of Theatre, the sponsors of this production. Lighting another smoke, Margo implores audience members to get a season subscription, as she paces her home turf, both theater and living quarters, strewn with manuscripts and featuring a prominent bar on overlayng patterned rugs, designed by fellow SMU grad Amelia Bransky, who also designed the stunning sets for DTC’s recent production of Frankenstein. Josh Kumler directs.
Her short black curls bouncing about her animated face, Hagedorn springs to the top of a book shelf as Margo proclaims her passion for creating a network of 20 theaters across the country to give a voice for all those playwrights, actors and designers with no place but Broadway to be heard. Referring often to her relentless energies, she circles the stage like a tiny lioness. Walking into the audience, surrounding her on four sides, Hagedorn’s Margo strikes up a conversation and asks people what they’d do in her place, or welcomes everybody to her theater. “Darlin’, I’m so glad you came,” she says, handing one woman a cigarette and another a manuscript.
Hagedorn’s Margo is no modest violet, and her use of affectionate names for strangers is deliberately cloying. While Margo is a woman with a mission, she certainly isn’t about to change her style to achieve it. She admits that while the Greeks actually invented theater-in-the-round, she’s the innovator who made it popular for small theaters to perform a play with no curtain and informal seating. She brags about persuading Frank Lloyd Wright to build a theater in Dallas, and about her gutsy control of what goes down in her theater, despite a board headed by Eugene McDermott, and an operation funded by his wealthy family.
She gushes lugubriously about the glories of Tennessee Williams and Summer and Smoke, a play she is thrilled to have produced in its world premiere. “That boy didn’t have a penny, but he could write,” she assures us, and claims she “talked him out of depression” by telling him his plays were great. Margo knows a play is brilliant, not because of specific characterization or plot, but because of “the gooseflesh you feel when something is really good.” Ditto with Inherit the Wind: her “personal reaction” gave her the faith to direct the controversial Scopes trial-based play by Jerome Laurence and Robert Lee, “even in the Bible belt.” It landed in Broadway less than a year after it premiered in Dallas Margo’s theater in 1955. (Hagedorn was in the ensemble of the Dallas Theater Center’s 2017 revival of Inherit the Wind.)
She gets weepy when she recalls the heartbreak of losing her lover and business manager, New Yorker Manning Gurian. She records a message to him on her big gray Dictaphone, “Have I told you lately that I love you?” Immediately Margo composes herself and slams down the recording arm and wails sorrowfully that she can’t help it that “everything we do, I get the credit for.” Hagedorn’s shoulders collapse together and she looks as bereft as an orphan on a doorstep in this scene.
Sometimes Hagedorn’s words for Margo are prosaic, although the play is based on the director’s letters and files, which she gathered from various sources, including Austin’s Harry Ransom Center and the personal collective of Margo’s niece, Judy Jones, near Houston. “I found out the only way you learn something is by doing it,” she tells the girls in the front row. And sometimes the mostly classical background music, designed by Kumler and Hagedorn, overwhelms the scene, as when she recalls her sister’s sad childhood death from the flu, while emotionally poignant romantic music plays behind the teary Margo.
Still, we follow Hagedorn and her passionate, determined and lonely Margo to the end in 1955, when she crumples to the carpet, the lights go out and the “Texas Tornado” leaves us with her pioneering theater legacy—there are also theaters named for Margo Jones at SMU and Texas Woman’s University in Denton; and the website you’re currently reading is named after her.
» Let Me Talk My Dreams runs through Memorial Day at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. Read our interview with Hagedorn here.