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'Vivien' offers gossip instead of insight; Cliched one-woman play fails to draw compelling portrait of troubled actress

Vivien Leigh, the star of stage and screen whose performances in "Gone With the Wind" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" left indelible impressions on the minds of generations of moviegoers and won her two Academy Awards, was a deeply conflicted and insecure soul.

If there's a compelling reason for us to care about that -- and surely there must be several -- "Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh," a one-woman play about the tortured actress written by Rick Foster and performed by Josephine Hogan in the New Phoenix Theatre, doesn't provide it.

Instead, it provides a patchwork of misty-eyed vignettes -- some touching, some awkward -- in which Foster has Leigh recount her struggles with manic-depression, and her fraught relationship with Lawrence Olivier. That, in addition to several bouts of quoting Shakespeare and dropping names, produces at best a fractured portrait of an admittedly fractured actress.

Foster's writing, which can at times be endearing or suffused with a kind of starry-eyed poetry, is most often the stuff of bio-play cliche. We learn that Leigh felt she did not fully become herself until she was onstage ("Parts of me don't exist until I play them out"), that she struggled deeply with manic-depression and that her marriage to Olivier was troubled by jealousy both personal and professional.

But for all its potential to peel back the psychological layers of one of the more fascinating figures in the history of theater and film, or to impart some lesson about the fragility of such a searing talent, the play gives us instead a kind of sentimentalized tabloid tale. It promises insight and delivers mostly gossip.

Throughout the play, Leigh is in her dressing room, remembering or re-experiencing various moments in her life that seem to hold some lingering import. At convenient moments, people like Noel Coward or the critic Kenneth Tynan drop in, just long enough for Leigh to launch a little reminiscence that usually has little to do with what came before or after.

Hogan, whether under the direction of Darleen Pickering Hummert or of her own volition, plays up the late actress' innocence rather than presenting the assured, searingly intelligent and viper-tongued vision of Leigh we have from surviving interviews. Of course the fragility of her private life has to be imagined, and Foster and Hogan here have conspired to paint a soft-focus picture that it isn't clear the late actress quite deserves.

Despite its major flaws, which in the end are insurmountable, the play does contain several compelling moments. These include the moment that Leigh gathers up all the rage of Lady Macbeth against Olivier, who, promise though he did, never cast her in a Shakespearean role on film. There's also a very funny exchange -- wonderfully executed by Hogan -- in which Leigh recounts an argument she and Olivier had over her being cast as Blanche DuBois.

Of DuBois -- the tortured heroine of "Streetcar" who lives on the brink of madness and eventually tumbles headlong into it -- Leigh says in the play that she knew that character all too well. Just how well, Foster's piece doesn't dare to explore. And though some day a play may meaningfully illuminate the potent connection between Leigh's disease and her searing talent, "Vivien" isn't it.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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"Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh"

Presented through Nov. 13 by New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 N. Johnson Park.

Tickets are $15 to $25.

Call 853-1334 or visit www.newphoenixtheatre.org.

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