The botched life of movie queen Frances Farmer has long been fodder for screenwriters and novelists; now Canadian playwright Sally Clark has tackled the troublesome tale with a script that examines the downfall of the woman known as a "highbrow commie" while flaying a dead-is-better-than-red America and Hollywood for its sordid role in her destruction.

The botched life of movie queen Frances Farmer has long been fodder for screenwriters and novelists; now Canadian playwright Sally Clark has tackled the troublesome tale with a script that examines the downfall of the woman known as a “highbrow commie” while flaying a dead-is-better-than-red America and Hollywood for its sordid role in her destruction.

This is not the first time Clark has delved into the life of a famous woman — two previous plays dealt with 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi and Joan of Arc. But “Saint Frances of Hollywood,” ironically titled to reflect an old tradition of saints as rabble-rousers who battle authority to further their cause, is by far the strongest and most satisfying of Clark’s historically motivated works.

Written in short, cinematic scenes, “Saint Frances” tracks the life of Farmer (Thea Gill) from age 19, when she won a trip to the Soviet Union after submitting an essay to a radical magazine, to just before her death from cancer at 57. Along the way, Clark documents a short-lived affair with Group Theater playwright Clifford Odets (Jack Nicholsen), her failed marriage to film actor Leif Erickson and the two horrific incarcerations in a mental hospital that destroyed her.

The facts, given Hollywood’s predilection for blaming Farmer’s often outrageous behavior on alcoholism, provide drama enough, but what Clark is attempting to do in “Saint Frances” is place Farmer somewhere between martyr and avenging angel, albeit one who uses four-letter words with abandon. She focuses on the way in which this headstrong, left-thinking and independent actor was muzzled by a Bible-thumping mother and an industry that thrived on turning out cookie-cutter beauties.

To this end, Clark has presented a fictionalized account in which slight liberties with fact build a pyramid of harrowing events; when Farmer is finally reduced by psychosurgery to a beautiful zombie, the effect is brutally chilling. Scenes in which hospital inmates, including Farmer, are regularly raped not only by orderlies, but also by visiting sailors who pay the night nurse for the “pleasure,” are luckily played out in stylized fashion — otherwise they would be too painful to watch.

Central to the success of this script is the casting of Farmer, who is here played by an actor who has experience, but little profile. If parts can still lead to that big break, then Gill should catapult to the top of Toronto’s theater community overnight.

Owing more to Jessica Lange than Farmer in looks, the sensuous and breathy-voiced Gill occasionally seems stretched to her limits, but she more than holds her own, often even carrying some less than satisfying performances with her. This is not to suggest that Gill’s is the only worthwhile turn on stage (both Kate Lynch and Nicholsen contribute strong cameos), but her ability to mesmerize an audience is reminiscent of Farmer’s own direct, gutsy appeal.

Director Hrant Alianak has wisely chosen to keep things simple, moving the multiscened play along at a good clip and relying on minimal props and Randy Gledhill’s miniature models of New York, Hollywood and the psychiatric hospital to set the scene.

A huge screen at the back of the stage occasionally plays appropriate snippets of Farmer’s films and there’s a spooky fascination in watching the real person on celluloid while her tortuous life unfolds below. It is this mix of fact and fantasy that Clark has captured so brilliantly and used to striking advantage.

Saint Frances of Hollywood

Production

TORONTO A Hollywood Ten presentation, in association with Independent Artists Prods. and Canadian Repertory Theater, of a play in two acts by Sally Clark. Directed by Hrant Alianak.

Crew

Set, Adam Swica; lighting and video, Chris Clifford; costumes, Angela Elter; sound, Jack Nicholsen; choreography, Viv Moore; fights, April A. Nicolle. Opened Jan. 17, 1996, at Canadian Stage Company/26 Berkeley St. Upstairs. Reviewed Jan. 19; 122 seats; $ 19 top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

With

Cast: Thea Gill (Frances Farmer), Martha Gibson (Lillian Farmer), George Sperdakos (Ernest Farmer, etc.), Jack Nicholsen (Clifford Odets, etc.), Allan Aarons (Ralph Schwab, etc.), Kate Lynch (Louella Parsons, etc.), Christopher Robertson (Harold Clurman, etc.); Jason Jones, Peter Van Wart, Jennifer Doyle, Eliza-Jane Scott.
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