Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has fascinated the world since her engagement to a young stock broker was published in The New York Times in 1952. From Jaclyn Smith in the 1981 television movie Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy to Natalie Portman’s 2016 portrayal in Jackie, artists have mined her story—as the First Lady, as a style maven, as a mother, as a widow, as an icon—and enthralled the public for decades. An endlessly complex woman, she is now the subject of award-winning playwright Tom Dugan’s new work Jackie Unveiled, starring Saffron Burrows, which opens February 28 at Los Angeles’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
Despite the plethora of portraits out there, Burrows feels confident Jackie is worth yet another look. “I wouldn’t have known, perhaps, the answer to that until I read Tom’s play,” says Burrows. Dugan’s solo script places Jackie at two different moments of her life—the first on the night Robert F. Kennedy was shot in 1968. A constant source of support (after a miscarriage early in her marriage and after his brother’s 1963 assassination), Robert remained a friend and confidant—even a surrogate father to her children—in the year’s following the President’s death.
“It’s really about existence and love and how the people you love either help you survive or don’t when they’re gone,” says Burrows of the 90-minute story.
What’s different about Dugan’s play is the specificity of the moments in time and the breadth between them. “[Other stories] that I’ve seen have really focused on a specific moment or week or month,” says Burrows. “This is just another canvas to add to the gallery of Jackie.”
The solo conceit affords a rare intimacy when it comes to a woman who was seemingly always surrounded by people. “[She’s] so often in relation to the men and the patriarchy of that family,” Burrows reflects. “[This] just feels incredibly private, which is a funny thing to say about a piece of theatre where you invite an audience to watch it.”
What has resonated with Burrows is the depth with which Dugan has captured Jackie. “What really drew me to it was the intimacy of the writing and the passion and the sort of messiness and the beauty of it and the fact that his writing encompasses the complexity of a person,” she says. “And I think that’s quite rare to find a woman written that way.”
To play such a complete character, Burrows pulls from her résumé. “The things I’ve done before felt like they were building blocks [for this],” she says. “When I was younger I was playing roles that didn’t feel quite old enough and now I’m a mother of two children. So the breadth of Jackie’s life…my biography… It’s an interesting age because I’m going back a bit to play the younger part and then forward.”
Thanks to director Jenny Sullivan (and dialect coach Liz Himmelstein), Burrows also feels prepared and excited to go to a place of rawness, humanity, and exposure: “There’s an element of reveal—which I obviously love to play—in theatre and that’s what I come across working on this.”
Jackie Unveiled runs February 28–March 11 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, California. Click here for tickets and information.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.