“Two Elizas” tells a family story that changed America

Jenny Mercein sitting on a chair on the right side of a round stage
'Two Elizas': Jenny Mercein. Photo by Stephanie Gamba

A compelling story of the ongoing struggle for women

Jenny Mercein on stage
‘Two Elizas’: Jenny Mercein. Photo by Stephanie Gamba

Jenny Mercein wears many hats – as an actor, a teacher, a director, a producer, and a writer. In her latest work, Two Elizas, now at Luna Stage in West Orange, she brings all her formidable talents to bear on a story drawn from her own family’s history. She has created a moving tribute to her great-aunt, Eliza Mercein Barry, and skillfully woven Barry’s struggles with her own struggles with societal expectations. She teaches us that the struggles for a woman’s autonomy in America have deep roots in the past and delivers her story in a one-woman tour-de-force performance that is a theatrical gift.

Eliza Mercein married Nova Scotia businessman and politician John Alexander Barry in 1835. The family moved to her beloved New York not long after. After John fails in business in New York, he plans to move the family back to Canada. Eliza refuses to move back so John leaves by himself. Eliza, now the mother of two, is subjected to a barrage of increasingly unhinged and abusive letters from John demanding she return with the children since, in the eyes of the law, they are all his property. Eliza divorces him but reluctantly agrees to send their son to live with his father. John then sues for custody of his daughter, and the resultant case, Barry v Mercein, makes its way to the Supreme Court.

Jenny Mercein on stage with lamp shades hanging from a black ceiling
‘Two Elizas’: Jenny Mercein. Photo by Stephanie Gamba

Mercein as a playwright tells a compelling story of the ongoing struggle for women to achieve legal personhood in this country. She juxtaposes her own story of the career versus wife-and-mother balancing act facing women today against Eliza’s struggles to attain autonomy. Jenny marries late in life after years of parental nudging, and she and her husband struggle to start a family while pursuing their careers.

Mercein and her two co-directors, Lori Elizabeth Parquet and Ryder Thornton, have illuminated a little-known milestone on the road to women’s equality under the law. What could so easily have become a dry lecture is instead brought to vivid, breathing life. This, I believe, is mostly due to Mercein’s talents as both writer and actress, morphing into Eliza, John, Eliza’s parents and sister, and Jenny’s parents and sister. She also portrays herself not as an omniscient storyteller but as a diligent researcher uncovering an important family story, as well as a middle-aged woman facing her own problems and uncertainties in taking on the roles of wife and mother.

Societal “norms” on the roles of women, coupled with the part played by still mostly male-dominated legislative and judicial systems, are reflected in today’s headlines. The long struggle for personhood, fought for by Eliza Mercein Barry over a century ago, continues. Two Elizas is a story of passion and feeling, of struggle and triumph — and loss — and Luna Stage is one of the few theaters I know that would be willing to present such a well-told, emotionally gripping story. I strongly recommend you see Two Elizas before its all-too-brief run ends.

Two Elizas is presented by Luna Stage in West Orange through May 14th.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to lunastage.org or call 973-395-5551.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.