Mariette Hartley has created an emotionally penetrating, if occasionally awkward, account of her struggle to live with personal tragedy, based on her 1990 memoir “Breaking the Silence.” Hartley’s solo legiter is infused with illuminating portrayals of the colorful folk who shaped her life, predominately her dysfunctional parents, Paul and Polly. The characterizations are finely detailed, but under the active helming of Don Eitner, characters often run into one another, making it difficult to determine who is being portrayed at a given moment.
The action centers on Hartley’s journey to the Abbey of Regina Laudis to receive spiritual counsel from former starlet friend Dolores Hart, who has been cloistered as Mother Dolores for 37 years. Getting telephone directions from the sprightly nun — who reads Daily Variety daily and is still a voting member of the Academy — on how to navigate the tricky Connecticut roads, Hartley is warned, “If you get to Bethlehem, you’ve gone too far.”
Constantly moving around Eitner’s evocative, all-purpose setting, Hartley uses her cathartic visit to the Abbey as a narrative springboard to recall her 1940s Connecticut upbringing. With subtle shifts in gesture and vocal nuance, the thesp embodies the tragic personas of her alcoholic but socially ambitious parents. Failed painter Paul drank himself through the daily grind of teaching at the Famous Artist School; Polly’s lack of mothering skills could be traced back to her upbringing as the daughter of John B. Watson, a renowned but misanthropic psychologist who advocated that children be trained, not touched or nurtured.
Hartley’s ability to shift personas seamlessly is exhilarating to observe, but often leaves the audience playing catch-up with the thematic throughline of her narrative.
She’s at her best when dwelling on a particular episode in her life. One highlight is her poignant relationship with legendary actress and drama teacher Eva Le Gallienne, whom Hartley met at 14 and trained with into her early 20s. The interplay between the constantly nurturing Le Gallienne and the painfully callow young hopeful beautifully underscores the evolution of Hartley’s emergence as one of Hollywood’s most dependable talents.
The latter portion of Hartley’s narrative heavy-handedly focuses on the suicide of her father in 1963 and her years of anguish as she tried to come to terms with the event and its debilitating aftermath.
The production is enhanced by the evocative lights and sounds of J. Kent Inasy and Marc Perlman, respectively. With judicious editing and a rethink of what is to be accomplished in this work, Hartley’s deeply dramatic autobiographical journey could have the legs to move up to a larger venue.