Actress-playwright Lynn Redgrave has written herself a big flashy role in her new play, “The Mandrake Root.” She’s dotty Lady Rose Randall, a very British former actress who both is and isn’t the playwright’s mother, British actress Rachel Kempson, aka Lady Redgrave, now in her 90s. Lady Rose’s husband, homosexual Sir Robert Randall, both is and isn’t the playwright’s father, the late Sir Michael Redgrave. And here we have the deeply unsettling crux of the play, the fact that it’s neither “dramatic fiction” inspired by the playwright’s mother nor honest fact, but instead sits uncomfortably on the fence. With her play, Redgrave does no favors for her parents or herself.
Scenes in the past and present, in Santa Barbara and England, are intermingled throughout, the play opening with Lady Rose’s daughter Sally (Pippa Pearthree) remembering how her mother used to brush her hair, followed by her mother reciting part of the John Donne poem “Song,” which gives the play its title.
Soon thereafter we find ourselves at the funeral of Lady Rose’s husband, during which she remembers him as “the poor bastard.” Elsewhere she refers to him as “queer” and to their marriage as “years and years of torture.”
Several times Sally asks her mother why she stayed married to him when he continued to bring young men home. Neither she nor the play ever answers this question.
At the time of their marriage, Lady Rose’s husband more or less hands over his best friend, Alistair, to her as a lover. Yet another oddity is a kinky love scene in which Lady Rose dresses as a young sailor for her lover. Is this to suggest that he was bisexual? Later the question arises of just who Sally’s father is. (The answer raises another question: Does Lynn Redgrave think she’s illegitimate? So much for the dangers of mixing fact and fiction.)
A further element of “queerness” is added to the already-too-rich mix by the introduction of Sally’s teenage daughter, a far from essential character who quickly announces to her grandmother that she is a lesbian. And just what is the scene between Lady Rose and a nun on an English beach supposed to mean?
In addition to her obsession with sex and her addiction to white wine and valium, Lady Rose thinks she’s a mandrake, the plant well known in superstition and literature for shrieking when it’s uprooted and for its root resembling the human body.
Redgrave hammers home this mandrake-root imagery, and also overplays other elements such as the Donne poem and bits of Shakespeare. Less would be more, as it would be in the playwright’s performance; she certainly overdoes the dottiness and the doddering qualities.
By virtue of its deeply felt simplicity, Pearthree’s performance is the most impressive. Sally is more interesting than Lady Rose, who can be trying and a bit of a bore as she rattles on belligerently.
Sally has been badly hurt by what she perceives as her parents’ abandonment of her, to the point where she has had her daughter by artificial insemination. The combination of this character and Pearthree’s portrayal of her suggests the possibility of an altogether more interesting play.
The play is also diminished by the fact that its male characters, notably Lady Rose’s husband, are so underwritten. This is made all the more obvious by the miscasting of Henry Stram, whose Sir Robert is never more than a wimp. The rest of the cast is fine, including Mark Chamberlin as Lady Rose’s lifelong lover.
Director Warner Shook has staged the play with admirable fluidity, helped by Michael Olich’s minimalist set, which makes the Long Wharf Theater’s Stage II stage seem larger than usual, and by Rui Rita’s lighting, much of it from the wings. The severe set, however, does lack warmth, an element that would be welcome whenever Lady Rose’s less attractive attributes are too much to the fore.
Composer Dan Moses Schreier’s original music is a plus, not least when it refers to the British folk song “Down by the Sally Gardens,” which is incorporated into the script itself, and sung.