On the theory that “no one dies who is remembered,” Lynn Redgrave expands on a few scraps of family memory to memorialize maternal grandmother Beatrice Kempson as a “Nightingale,” singing sweetly but unseen in the dark. Acting her own text, Redgrave commands the stage of the Mark Taper Forum with consummate skill, though interest is diminished by play’s single-minded focus on the unremarkable elements of an unremarkable life.
Against a backdrop of transparent panels, painted by Tobin Ost to resemble the bottom of a dowager’s night-table drawer (old postcards, pressed flowers and the like), the renamed “Mildred Asher” conducts 11 monologues corresponding to key events over 60 years. Mildred marries less than passionately; resents her “pinched-face” daughter while worshipping a beloved son; and considers, but rejects, a little Lady Chatterley action with a strapping farmer.
Actress persuasively evokes this astringent character, whom all agree “hadn’t been easy to love,” through subtle vocal and physical changes from youthful demureness to middle-aged propriety, and thence to the severity of old age. Redgrave seems to shrivel before our eyes, as do Mildred’s dreams.
Character’s skill at describing settings in precise detail conveys a specific type of Englishwoman of her day, one in touch with the sensuality of rooms and landscapes but unable to come to grips with her own inner longings. Near death, she mourns the joys she has never known, though it’s unclear to what extent she recognizes it’s her austere personality that has cost her so much potential bliss.
Finest moment for both play and performer occurs upon discovery that Mildred’s MIA son actually perished early in WWII. Redgrave is chillingly still and spare as she makes us see the circumstances of his death and ache at her conviction that she was psychically complicit in it. In this sequence, her carefully cultivated dignity is character’s invaluable shield against a breakdown.
But no life is comprised solely of repression, and surely Beatrice/Mildred had more to contribute to the family bloodline than felicitous physical description. She did, after all, give birth to Rachel Kempson, mother of Lynn and Vanessa and a noted thesp in her own right. That the matriarch’s life was largely an eventless disappointment to her is sad but not exactly conducive to gripping theater.
One-hander lacks a strong antagonist along the lines of cold and distant dad Michael Redgrave, whose lifelong refusal to acknowledge his youngest daughter lent desperation to Lynn’s tribute in her earlier monodrama “Shakespeare for My Father.” Here, the cold and distant one is the central figure.
Combination of muted emotionality and muted conflict lends a tonal sameness to “Nightingale” despite helmer Joseph Hardy’s efforts to vary the actress’s pacing and inhabiting of the space.
Late in the play Mildred attends “A Doll’s House,” featuring her stage-star daughter as literature’s most famous repressed wife. At one point Ibsen’s Nora waves a tambourine and dances wildly — exactly the kind of moment Redgrave never grants to Mildred. When she expresses herself artistically, it’s not through acting or dance but watercolors, leading her to the shocked realization, “I could paint my life as a still life.”
The inclusion of a single sequence in which we could see Mildred grab a metaphorical tambourine and burst her emotional fetters, letting her hair down in agony or ecstasy as (at least in her mind) she must have done, would deepen the character portrait and give “Nightingale” a welcome dramatic lift.
As it is, by showing us nothing but still life throughout, playwright Redgrave creates a bird in a gilded cage who sings but never quite soars.