A desk, a chair, an open script, an actress with a story to tell and a passion to be heard — that’s all it takes for Lynn Redgrave to hold us in the palm of her hand for another of her searching one-woman plays about her famous family. Unlike previous pieces about her father, Sir Michael Redgrave (“Shakespeare for My Father”), and mother, Rachel Kempson (“The Mandrake Root”), this one is more fiction than memoir. Written with a sense of urgency, “Nightingale” is an attempt to connect with the maternal grandmother she barely knew: “that chilly ghost whose hands were always cold.”
Not unlike “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the Joan Didion cri de coeur performed on Broadway by her sister, Vanessa, Redgrave’s play had its origins in personal pain and grief. While clear enough to satisfy anyone who has kept abreast of Redgrave’s divorce 10 years ago, her subsequent treatments for cancer, and the recent death of her niece, Natasha Richardson, the references may be a bit too cryptic for the uninitiated.
In theatrical terms, they are thrown out too quickly to make for a smooth dramatic transition into the imagined life of Redgrave’s grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. Not that director Joseph Hardy lets the rough patches show. Bathed in the honey-gold tones of Rui Rita’s lighting, Redgrave’s unselfish performance is the essence of — if not love, then generosity of the warmest, richest kind.
Before launching into her imaginings about her grandmother, Redgrave grabs us with a riveting image of the playwright searching through an English graveyard for Beatrice’s final resting place — only to discover that acid rain has washed away the name from her headstone. Robbed of her identity, the forgotten grandmother becomes the ideal touchstone for a woman who felt herself “lost at sea” after her divorce, swimming into an existential void.
Once past its awkward opening, “Nightingale” settles into itself as an attempt to understand and feel affection for a difficult and distant woman. Redgrave finds poignancy in the life of this treasured, but overly sheltered and sadly unfulfilled Edwardian lady. True or not, it’s a lovely and quite tender portrait of a timid little girl who grew up to watch her bolder sisters and confident daughters grasp the joys of life she was too innocent (and shamefully untutored) to allow herself.
With her rounded eyes and feathery voice, Beatrice (or “Beanie,” as she was known as a child) seems very much like the bird she hears singing outside her window at night. A sweet singer, doomed to sing her song alone. Redgrave injects herself from time to time into her grandmother’s story, identifying with the way she was faithful to her unhappy marriage (“loneliness within a marriage can drive you mad”), but recoiling from her rejection of Redgrave’s mother. (“Was she jealous of Rachel? Is this the woman whose hand I want to hold?”)
Like her or not — and Redgrave remains ambivalent about her feelings — she draws a largely sympathetic portrait of her grandmother. She even invents an unspoken, but unforgotten love to keep that chilly old lady warm in her later years. (“Heat to warm the uncherished heart” is how she delicately puts it.)
And if it isn’t true, it’s still a lovely gift, giving someone back the story of their life.