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TheatreWorks Mounts Brilliant Redgrave Tribute

By Jaime Ferris, Housatonic Times


"All the world's a stage." That Shakespearean phrase from "As You Like It" has often been used by artists of all walks of life, but for the late Lynn Redgrave, it is a phrase that could not have been more true. A descendent of theatrical royalty, the Kent resident was a true tour de force on stage and screen, but to local residents she was Lynn, always humble and down to earth, and willing to lend a hand. To director Jane Farnol, she was a close friend.

So it seems only fitting that Ms. Farnol should take the helm in staging Ms. Redgrave's first effort as a playwright, "Shakespeare for My Father," which opened Friday night at TheatreWorks New Milford to a full house starring Susan Pettibone as the heir to the Redgraves' remarkable theatrical dynasty. While it seems more poignant after the actress' death last year, it is, regardless, a riveting evening of theater, and a beautiful tribute to her life and career.

"Lynn's death last year brought to an untimely end an incredible career in films and on stage," Ms. Farnol said in a director's note. "'… Shakespeare for My Father' … [is] a skillful distillation of compassion, humor, complex family remembrances, an honest and unsparing view of 'life upon the stage' and a generous hint of that special magic that lures many of us to the backstage."

Indeed, the play, which originally debuted in 1993, is a look behind the curtain. The autobiographical, one-woman show is an irreverent look not only at Ms. Redgrave's life, but the Redgrave story itself, revolving around her father, Sir Michael Redgrave, son of an actor and an actress and the patriarch of yet another company of talented actors and actresses—Vanessa, Corin and Lynn, the youngest. But throughout production, the audience sees the actress in a very different light, the play offering a revealing and occasionally remorseful account of her virtually fatherless childhood in a very stage-struck family.

This extraordinary memoir-play was carefully crafted by the actress into a "complex, funny and moving portrait of a child's longing for the love of Sir Michael Redgrave—the inscrutable, daunting, and charismatic Shakespearian actor … ."

One need not know every detail of the actress' famous family's history (she was the fifth-generation of a thespian lineage), nor have an intimate knowledge of her own career (she had acted on both stage and screen for decades before penning "Shakespeare for My Father," and the semi-autobiographical "Nightingale," one of her last projects). Rather, what unfolds on stage is a story to which many can connect—a lonely childhood during which her famous parents were either away, on tour, or, in her father's case, overzealously perfecting his latest role. She recalls how her more outgoing siblings received more attention from her parents than she, and even goes so far as to refer to herself as "the glum one" in family photos. Yet, despite her deep feelings of abandonment, she went on to become a star herself, far from her father's spotlight.

Lynn also candidly discusses her father's sense of insecurity, despite his "knighthood" in English acting, and his stature as an actor of the same caliber as friend and rival, Laurence Olivier. There are interesting tidbits of family history, offering some fascinating food for thought, including an insightful story about her grandfather, actor Roy Redgrave. Though she never met him, she made a point of finding his unmarked grave in Australia and, at her father's bequest, had a single word inscribed on his tombstone after his name: Actor.

We experience with Lynn the evolving relationship she had with her father as his career drew to a close due, in large part, to the Parkinson's disease that debilitated him so much he was hardly able to speak, and we are there as he is further hindered by dementia later on in the play. But it is not all melancholic recollections. There are also flights of fancy and comic relief, with ruminations about her siblings and the celebrated stars who frequented the Redgraves' home and lives.

Lynn, we discover, long suffered from fear of her father and pain from abandonment, but it was through Shakespeare that she was finally able to connect to him, however elusive that connection might have been. While her anecdotes are at once touching and heartbreaking, her seamless entwining of scenes from the Bard's work with specific memories in her life solidifies that sad reality.

Ms. Redgrave described it herself: "I set to work on a one-act play using Shakespeare's words to take the scenes from my life to another plane. A play about my father and my search for him. A search I still continued long after his death." She soon realized that, "It seemed that people saw their own relationships with their fathers, living or dead, reflected in my story."

Watching these memories play out before you on stage, the viewer often forgets this is not the legendary Lynn Redgrave digging through family trunks, sharing her life's story, but rather an actress portraying her. Ms. Pettibone is an absolute delight to watch on stage, her extraordinary acting prowess never wavering. Throughout the one-act play, she depicts not only Ms. Redgrave herself, but the male and female "characters" of her life—at all ages—as well as fictional characters that left an indelible impression on young Lynn, including the scene between the Nurse and Juliet, Lear and Cordelia, or Viola and Portia. There is an amusing impression of Maggie Smith, and of a television journalist, among others, that will not go forgotten—and Ms. Pettibone nails each and every personality with the flair and individuality it deserves, none of them similar to the others. She must be exhausted by night's end.

It must be a daunting task for the actress, portraying a local legend whose passing is so fresh in people's minds, but her performance is one of great dignity and poise. It has been several years since Ms. Pettibone has graced the TheatreWorks stage, but it was well worth the wait.

Kudos go to Ms. Farnol for the courage to direct this remarkable one-woman show, and to she and Ms. Pettibone for their set design, complete with the original chair Ms. Redgrave used herself in the Broadway production, and an elegant Cecil Beaton photograph of Sir Michael Redgrave, reminding viewers of the actor in his prime. Many thanks also go to Ms. Redgrave's son and daughter, Ben and Annabel Clark, for offering their support to mount the production. It is a fitting tribute to the actress, to whom the production is dedicated.

"'Shakespeare for My Father,'" Ms. Farnol said in her director's note, "is hopefully not the end of our tribute to this lovely and talented lady; it is, however, a beginning upon which we happily and respectfully embark." One can only hope this is, indeed, just the beginning. Ms. Farnol has outdone herself with this inspiring and poignant production. It is TheatreWorks at its best.

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