It may be a stretch to say that Lynn Redgrave has created a kind of “I Am My Own Grandmother” in her solo show and latest shake of the family tree, “Nightingale.” But it’s relevant to note the extent to which seemingly difficult, cold and unlovable women can command a stage.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the lead character of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” had Nazis, Communists and her own cross-dressing to spice things up. Redgrave’s Mildred Asher — a fictionalized version of maternal granny Beatrice Kempson — had a far more ordinary and unfulfilled life. Fortunately, Redgrave’s performance artistry keeps auds fascinated while the play searches for significance.
A well-crafted script, tasteful design elements and deft helming by directing vet Joseph Hardy also compliment the production, now being given another go-round at Hartford Stage. But it’s Redgrave’s stellar work playing her distant relative — and other characters that shaped her gram’s life — with clarity, depth and honesty that gives this portrait of a repressed woman its distinction.
Redgrave has reworked the script since it premiered at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles last year, expanding the parts in which she plays herself in the opening and in transitions between the dozen or so episodes as we follow her grandmother from girlhood to old age.
Play opens following the thesp’s devastating divorce as Redgrave searches for understanding at the grave of this woman of seemingly no importance. Seeing her grandmother’s name on her tombstone, partly washed away by acid rain, she wonders what mark her own life will leave. But this identity crisis and existential pondering don’t pack the same emotional wallop as the actress-writer’s earlier “Shakespeare for My Father,” where the complex connections of parent, child and art become a dazzling triple helix.
The link to Redgrave’s Millie is a more tenuous one. The world in which her grandmother lived and the choices she made seem to bear little relation to the actress’s own life and personal crisis — other than to serve as a negative example. In Redgrave’s effort to reclaim her grandmother in a place beyond where memory ends, she is left with a bromide for living life to the fullest because time’s awasting — something the audience learns far sooner from this woman’s stunted life.
Still, Redgrave infuses Millie with sympathy, understanding and even humor. (A post-performance letter to Millie’s actress daughter — Redgrave’s mother, Rachel Kempson — is a delicious gem of passive aggression.) The spoiled and class-conscious Millie is surprisingly likable as she grows from a girl praying to God for happiness to an adolescent worrying about the possibility of spinsterhood to a young bride trembling with dread on her honeymoon night.
But as the aud gets to know the character more, Millie’s personal flaws become compounded and the best that can ultimately be said of her is she created a series of examples of what not to do as a wife, mother or lover.
Her longing for a farmer she meets during a holiday goes unrequited — and provides the show with its most powerful tension. The news of the death of her beloved son in WWII prompts a shattering of her reserve and an accounting of her own lost life.
A victim of her time and circumstance? Perhaps, but then what makes Millie’s sister, who lived in the same household and the same era, an open, life-embracing woman while Millie becomes so closed off? Redgrave’s vivacious great aunt seems to be one from whom the actress should have sought counsel — and inspiration — in her difficult time.