Tuesday, May 9, 2023


May 9, 2023

By Ruth Ross

Over the past decade, with the advent of more accurate DNA tests, genealogy has become a popular hobby for many people—often revealing unknown ancestors with troubling and very intriguing stories.

Something like this happened to playwright/actor Jenny Mercein, who discovered a long-lost ancestor not by DNA but through an old boyfriend, now a law student, who came upon a child custody case, involving her ninth great-grandfather that had been adjudicated by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1847!

On the intimate Luna Stage, over the course of 90 minutes, the world premiere of The Two Elizas weaves Jenny’s own story of late marriage and difficult pregnancy with that of Eliza Mercein, born in 1806, married to John Berry at 29, divorced at 33, and forced to give up one of her children, a son, to her ex-husband so he would let her go.

Wearing a red midi-dress and brown boots, Jenny moves fluidly around a circular playing space, drolly recounting tales of her own prospective “spinsterhood” and fertility problems while she narrates the harrowing tale of Eliza’s marriage to a ne’er-do-well deadbeat Canadian politician, who spirits her away from her beloved New York City and loving family to windy Liverpool, Nova Scotia, where he treats her as his property, infantilizes, and loudly berates her so that she fears for her physical safety.

What enables her to inhabit Eliza’s persona is the wealth of letters the young woman wrote to her family, along with letters written by her sister Imogen and some of Eliza’s poetry. We meet a spunky young woman whose father has the foresight to draw up a pre-nuptial agreement stipulating that the couple will live in Canada for one year before returning to New York City. What she doesn’t reckon with is the controlling personality of her husband, his subsequent bankruptcy, and his demand that she give him custody of their first born, a son, in return for the divorce. The case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court when Berry sues for custody of their daughter Mary, a case he lost.

This double drama plays out on a spare set designed by Jack Golden and atmospherically lit by Rachel Budin. An interesting touch is the myriad lampshades of various design hanging upside-down over the playing space. Original music composed by Maxim Samarov and played by cellist Amanda Duffin enhances the production. Directors Lori Elizabeth Parquet and Ryder Thornton keep the dramatic tension tight so that Jenny can move fluidly between the roles of herself and Eliza without losing the audience’s attention.

The result is a terrific character study of two very interesting women, alike in their feistiness, independence and pride. Jenny Mercein gives a master class performance in The Two Elizas, one you won’t want to miss before it ends this coming weekend. As herself and as her ancestor, Mercein conveys what it means to be a woman expected by society to marry and produce children, and the problems one can encounter along the way. The 1847 landmark Supreme Court decision ruling that a woman and her children are not the property of her husband continues to resonate today and is a poignant reminder that women have come a long way…and have a long way to go.

The Two Elizas will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through May 14. For information and tickets, call 973.395.5551 or visit online.