Flying solo

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 13, 2007

Lynn Redgrave scored with her one-person show Shakespeare for My Father, but that had both Sir Michael and the Bard going for it. Nightingale was spurred by personal crisis (the dissolution of the actress’s 32-year marriage) and a visit to Redgrave’s maternal grandmother’s grave — where she was appalled to find her progenitor’s name washed from her headstone by acid rain. It seemed the final insult to a life never writ large, and Redgrave set about conjuring it, creating a sort of mosaic from crumbs, cliché, and imagination. She performs her play beautifully, navigating smoothly between her own regal yet candid persona and that of her fictionalized ancestor — who’s renamed Mildred Asher and portrayed in ages ranging from a young girl of 1904, when she imagines a future by inserting herself into magazine pictures, to an elderly woman painting still lifes in the wake of having lived one.

You might say the character based on Beatrice Kempson lives a life of quiet disappointment, genteelly shrinking from anything so large and unladylike as desperation. Certainly her lot is meager in luxury and love, and it translates into meagerness thrown back. Once disappointed — or, in the case of sex, downright disgusted — Mildred becomes a cold wind blowing through her own house, chilly to husband and daughter though huffing a bit of tenderness in the direction of her son, the loss of whom in World War II is the defining disappointment to cap the small ones. Supplying the young Mildred with just enough flirtatious, naive hope to make us wince at its desiccation and skillfully delineating the encroachment of age, Redgrave renders this unbending product of her time and class sympathetic if not likable. Moreover, the piece is lyrically written and complemented by Joseph Hardy’s precise, impressionistic staging, in which the actress is backed by a geometric jumble of flats on which blurred bits of landscape, like a mental scrapbook, are projected — only to disappear the minute Mildred’s dim light goes out, leaving one of her multitudinous more-dramatic relations to carry the torch.

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