In a touching but misguided display of filial devotion, Vanessa Redgrave has pieced together this recital of short stories and snippets from plays by Chekhov as more of a showcase for her mother, Rachel Kempson Redgrave, who will be 88 on May 28, than for herself. But the recital asks too much of the octogenarian British actress, and as a theater piece is far too evanescent.
At the center of “Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town,” which takes its title from one of the recently discovered Chekhov short stories included in it, is a reading by a seated Rachel Redgrave, book in hand, of the well-known Chekhov short story “The Lady With a Dog” in the Constance Garnett translation. Unfortunately, the widow of Michael Redgrave, though disarmingly endearing, was hard to hear and lacked the energy to bring the short story to theatrical life at the second of the recital’s three world premiere performances.
They were a highly anticipated part of the fifth annual Massachusetts Intl. Festival of the Arts in western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, but even with the invigorating presence and vocal heft of Vanessa Redgrave, the recital’s entire 65 minutes played more like a rehearsal than a finished product.
For “Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town,” the stage of Springfield’s StageWest was furnished with several tables and chairs, a piano and two trunks, with Rachel Redgrave entering first dressed as the old governess Charlotta from “The Cherry Orchard.” Her daughter followed shortly afterwards, coming onstage through the body of the theater playing a guitar and wearing contemporary, androgynous clothes, including white jeans, a sports coat and scarves. The rationale for this costume came later when she played a man in the acted-out short story “How I Came to Be Lawfully Wed.”
The pair’s opening gambit as a duo was the amusing “Questions Posed by a Mad Mathematician,” in which it was apparent that the older actress no longer had the quick responses necessary for the give and take involved. Then came the title short story, in which a wide variety of very personal and droll reactions to an appearance in Russia by the legendary Bernhardt are related. The recital came to an end with brief bits and pieces by Vanessa, now in period costume, as Nina (“The Seagull”) and Olga (“The Three Sisters”) and her mother as Sonia (“Uncle Vanya”). It did not, however, gel or add up to a satisfactory whole, Vanessa even going somewhat overboard as a grief- and love-stricken Nina, smoking nervously. Technically, however, all of the production’s music, sound effects and lighting cues were spot-on.
There will be a single performance of the show in New York at Symphony Space on May 13.