How does one become a legend? It seems some are born legends, some achieve legendary status and some have legends thrust upon them.
The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis fits all three categories. Born into wealth and social status, she became the First Lady of the U.S. and later the wife of the world’s richest shipping magnate, as well as a book editor, fashion icon and mother.
Los Angeles boasts its share of theater icons, one of whom—like Jackie—may also fit these three categories. Jenny Sullivan, daughter of stage and screen actor Barry Sullivan, grew up around legends. A working actor, she carved out a prolific directing career and garnered trust and praise from her casts.
So, perhaps it makes sense that Sullivan and Onassis are together—at least in spirit—for the next few months as she directs playwright Tom Dugan’s one-woman show, Jackie Unveiled, in its world premiere at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
Among Sullivan’s many stage credits, she directed Dugan’s 2011 solo show Wiesenthal. Here the playwright and director collaborate again, this time casting Saffron Burrows (Mozart in the Jungle) as Jackie.
Sullivan says that—aside from a similar facial structure and an astonishing ability to re-create Jackie’s voice—Burrows won the role because the actor has a directness to the audience. “She connects,” says Sullivan. “She’s got that thing. It’s what you need with this person talking with the audience, but not in an uncomfortable way.”
The play’s real-life inspiration resonated with Sullivan’s personal life. She vividly recalls her own connection to the Kennedy era. “The first person I voted for was Robert Kennedy,” she says, “so I bring my own emotional content to that.”
Politics, of course, play a part in Jackie Unveiled, as they did in the former First Lady’s life. “She was the keeper of the house,” Sullivan points out. “But she was very smart [about] where she took the rest of her life, how these events impacted the rest of her life—and she survived them.”
The show’s creators want young audiences to understand how the First Lady’s work behind the scenes became a turning point for women and for political history. In the play, Jackie (as a character) discusses what it means to support someone who runs for President. “It’s down and dirty,” Sullivan says of Jackie’s sacrifices. “It’s not a Doris Day movie.”
Jackie Unveiled mentions contemporary politicians like the Clintons by name. But it will be up to the audience to glean from subtext what the production has to say about how certain current figures will affect our nation’s history—those who’ve had legends thrust upon them.
Jackie Unveiled is at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts Feb 22–Mar 11. $60.