As the holidays approach, with their family gatherings, many begin to feel the ache of old emotional wounds. Visits from parents remind one of praise that was never given, accomplishments that were never acknowledged, achievements that were never fully understood.
Lynn Redgrave can relate. Her brilliant and extremely moving one-woman show “Shakespeare for My Father” is her attempt to turn such feelings into art.
It is the story of her relationship with her emotionally distant father, the acclaimed actor Sir Michael Redgrave. Lynn, it seems, barely registered as a blip on her dad’s emotional radar screen; on the day she was born, the event is not even mentioned in his diary.
Redgrave traces her family tree and sketches the highlights of her career, along the way doing very sharp impersonations of such luminaries as Noel Coward and Edith Evans. Her show provides theater with plenty to enjoy on that level.
The heart of her story, however, is the apparent heartlessness of her late father, which she explores in great detail but without anger. Appropriately, she interweaves her memories with monologues and brief scenes from Shakespeare, the source of Sir Michael’s greatest roles.
A memory of reaching out to her father, to no avail, leads into a scene from “Hamlet,” in which the title character reaches out to the ghost of his father, to no avail. A scene depicting her elderly father, his abilities destroyed by Parkinson’s disease, segues into the scene in which Cordelia forgives King Lear.
The Redgraves’ father-daughter story is full of cruel ironies, the biggest being that a man who was acclaimed for his emotional expressiveness on stage “disappeared behind his face” at home — a face she calls “impenetrable, emotionless.”
No wonder, as a little girl, Lynn would stare at his makeup mirror, wondering if her real father had somehow gotten trapped inside it. In some ways, he was.
She reveals that in his recurring nightmare, his face starts to slip off after he applies his stage makeup, leaving a blank slate in place of his eyes, nose and mouth. He clearly feared he did not exist outside of the stage.
As a writer, Redgrave has an eye for telling details; as an actress, she manages to transform herself instantly into most any character she chooses (including herself as a child). Her simple costume consists of black pants and a black top; to portray a character, she occasionally augments this with a hat, a scarf or a shawl.
There is no set as such; just a couple of trunks, such as the ones her ever-traveling father lived out of, and a lovely portrait of Sir Michael, which is projected onto the wall behind her for much of the show.
At the end, Lynn gestures to that photograph, sharing her well-deserved applause with the man who could never acknowledge her talent. It’s a simple gesture that contains layers of emotional complexity and as such, an appropriate way to end this brutally honest but forgiveness-filled show.