The Pater Principle
June is the month Hallmark has told us we should wax sentimental over Dad. In reality, the towering figure of a father can be a forbidding presence from a child's perspective. Men are traditionally reticent about revealing their feelings, so a child may be mystified by a father's behavior. What the man might describe as strength, the child could see as indifference. This chasm may be dramatically deepened if the father is also a famous actor, for whom eloquence, emotions, even tears flow easily on the stage, and especially if the daughter is the third child behind extroverted siblings.
Such is the case with Lynn Redgrave, who has revisited her complicated feelings about her famous father, Sir Michael Redgrave, in a confessional one-person show called Shakespeare for My Father, now playing in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center under the auspices of the Arizona Theatre Company.
Redgrave is one of our more gifted contemporary actresses, with an impressive resume of signal accomplishments that range from her early Academy Award nomination for Georgy Girl to acclaim as Saint Joan. Ironically, fame in the 20th century means most will remember her as the ubiquitous spokesperson for Weight Watchers.
In her current monodrama, Redgrave is also responsible for the writing, composed of narrative segments that piece together excerpts from Shakespeare that illuminate her relationship with her father.
Approaching the almost-bare stage from the audience, Redgrave climbs over the apron wearing an Australian cowboy hat, an outback overcoat and boots. She moves the solitary lamp (called a ghost light) into the wings, and contemplates the sparse setting: a trunk, a wooden armchair and an open wardrobe, draped with a couple of capes.
Behind her hovers the dim figure of Michael Redgrave's melancholy visage, projected on a black scrim. Michael was a Shakespearean actor of the second rank, overshadowed by Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, but still remembered for a rich repertoire of great roles, most notably his tender poet/king Richard II. Michael was himself the son of an actor, Roy Redgrave, who immigrated to Australia, essentially abandoning wife and child to a finer life in England. It is here that Lynn begins her tale, aching to see her father's indifference to her as a consequence of his own paternal estrangement.
Lynn shares with us the highlights of her childhood memories, inspired by a gift from her father, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, inscribed: "To darling Lynn, with love from Dad, Christmas, 1953."
Her assessment of herself is pretty severe, describing herself in a photograph at the age of 3: "My face is round and glum: I look like a mushroom." Certainly not now: She is lithe and beautiful, wearing her maturity with an elegant authority.
Her father seemed to have many faces: kings, common men, villains, heroes. Hoping to dig up shards of a personal connection, Lynn looks up the date of her birth (March 8, 1943) in her father's diary. He was performing in A Month in the Country, but he does not note Lynn's birth. Rather, it is filled with details of the performance, who came back afterward, what was said, and where he went after the show. This encapsulates Lynn's hunger for recognition from her father, and, as the evening unfolds, we begin to understand that it will be a futile hunger.
There are delicious autobiographical details. Lynn's famous sister Vanessa's birth was announced from the stage by Olivier, when Michael was playing Laertes to Olivier's Hamlet. Brother Corin is named after the shepherd in As You Like It, while Lynn owes her name to the great actress Lynn Fontaine, who had offered to care for the Redgrave children during the threatening years of the Second World War. There are scintillating quotes from Lynn's father's international friends, including this from Alfred Lunt, regarding Hollywood: "We can be bought--but not bored!"
But the main focus of the evening is the sad saga of unrequited adoration of Lynn for her father. It is shocking how revealing she is about herself, and she never seems to sugar over the gaping pain caused by her father's preoccupations. There is more than a tinge of jealousy over Vanessa's predominance, not only with their father, but with the theatre world itself.
Among the reminiscences, Lynn has interspersed bits of Shakespeare that seem appropriate to the biographical experience she is relating. Among these, the best-performed is the scene between Juliet and her nurse, with Redgrave adroitly handling both roles in a dazzling display of dramatic technique.
Another highlight of the evening is the delightful backstage story of Dame Edith Evans, Maggie Smith and Lynn in Noel Coward's Hay Fever. Lynn proves herself an adept imitator, having a ball with the eccentricities of Evans. Lynn's warmth infuses the satire with affection, and we can roar with an appreciation free of malice.
The tone of the evening is very intimate, brave and a little sad, but always spontaneous. Lynn is able to make playing in the Valley of the Sun very personal by reminding us that she is thrilled to be playing at the Herberger, only a few miles from Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University, where her father had such a triumph in The Hollow Crown.
Shakespeare for My Father has been produced and directed by Lynn's husband, John Clark, and the two of them have continued making improvements in the staging since I saw the production in New York three years ago, where it played on Broadway for 272 performances. Now, the play moves along smoothly, at an engaging pace that stimulates the illusion of spontaneity. On opening night in Phoenix, there were passages that were too soft to fill the large theatre, but I was assured the sound system would be adjusted to remedy this flaw.
The audience was enchanted by Lynn Redgrave, and you will be, too. This is an evening that is touching, amusing and warmly charming. What a pleasure to have this stage memoir to remind us of the importance of intimate contact with one another! As Shakespeare put it so well: "What is love? 'Tis not hereafter. Present mirth hath present laughter." Michael Redgrave may never be a poster dad for Father's Day, but Lynn Redgrave's meditation on him is a treasure.
Shakespeare for My Father continues through Sunday, June 23, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.
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