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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lynn Redgrave
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Whatís true on February 14 is generally true in the theatre, too: Itís the simple valentines that mean the most. Itís difficult to imagine one more no-frills than Lynn Redgraveís play Nightingale, which sheís just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I. Itís just the actress, a chair, a wooden desk, and a series of stories - some indeterminate number of them true, presumably - about her grandmother, Beatrice Kempson. Considering the notebook placed on the desk that Redgrave constantly refers to, itís not even clear the evening is wholly memorized. But itís transfixing and transporting just the same.

Because, within Redgraveís largely imagined yet emotionally true saga lies the understanding - or the lack of it - of the family that defines who we all are. As with her previous one-woman show, Shakespeare for My Father (which dealt with dad Michael), and her multicharacter play The Mandrake Root (loosely based on her mother, and Beatriceís daughter, Rachel), Redgrave delivers a poignant but probing look at a catalytic force in her life. This one, however, is perhaps made even juicier by the fact that Redgrave barely knew Beatrice herself and came to most of her discoveries and conclusions later.

Spurred by divorce from her longtime husband John Clark, cancer, her motherís death, and her brotherís near-fatal heart attack, Redgrave flew to her grandmotherís grave to search for inspiration, only to find that her name and the dates of her life had been eroded by acid rain. With them disintegrated any concrete understanding of the woman without whom the celebrated Redgrave acting clan we know today would be nonexistent. In an attempt to make sense of the unknown, Redgrave therefore does what any loving granddaughter would do: she makes up Beatriceís life.

Well, not entirely. Shreds here and there can be tied to reality, and certain facts along the way - mostly having to do with names and generalized outlooks on the pre-World War I world - are undoubtedly indisputable. But Beatriceís speech, the depth of feeling, and her specific experiences as a woman growing up at the threshold of what we consider modernity are new, backfilled recollections that make sense of the life and world Redgrave herself understands, but that in the strictest sense of speaking arenít traditionally accurate.

Beatriceís religious upbringing in Victorian England. Her isolation from any talk or simple knowledge of sex until her wedding night. (And, well, technically not even then.) The scandalous prospect of living without a maid, despite being completely unable to afford one. The entrapment within a marriage that she doesnít find at all emotionally satisfying, but thatís ornamented with the birth of a son, Robin, who bestows on her a love and tenderness sheíd never thought possible but which - thanks to the ravages of history - is not destined to last. Her reaction to her daughter and Michaelís flourishing acting careers.

Because of the great care with which Redgrave approaches all of these anecdotes, it rapidly ceases to matter which are based in fact and which supposition - they're all moving and convincing nonetheless. With the merest of vocal changes - Beatrice's voice sits perhaps half an octave below Redgraveís - and few physical movements to speak of (for all intents and purposes, Redgrave never rises from behind that desk), the actress carves a woman of astonishing personal fortitude and character who was, in her own way, just as theatrical as the better-known figures from her famous family.

Director Joseph Hardy helms the minimalist but effective production, keeping the set design (by Tobin Ost), limited to that antique desk and a postcard backdrop, and the lighting (Rui Rita) as simple as can be, but Redgraveís emotions and delivery complex. Despite the lack of trappings, you never feel youíre seeing any sort of a lesser venture - only one woman at the top of her form, embodying a gloriously fictional real-life woman - or is that a gloriously realistic fictional woman? That itís hard to tell for sure is one of the playís most telling joys.

Though you never have trouble distinguishing Redgrave from Beatrice, after a while the two begin to meld into one - that's as it should be. The playís clearest through line is that despite having hardly known each other and being born some five decades apart, the two are kindred spirits of a kind. The former was strong-willed but constricted by the delicacy of her time; the latter has had more, but not necessarily better, options for conducting her life, and has faced much of the adversity that Beatrice spent decades silently fighting against.

By the end of the play, when Redgrave most openly acknowledges the value of all she learned from her grandmother - whether real or not - you're deeply reminded of the impact that your family (even those youíve never met) have had on your life. Redgrave is apparently a new character in her own story since the playís earlier productions at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2006 and Hartford Stage in Connecticut in 2007. But because sheís so instrumental in conveying who Beatrice was and what she stood for, itís now impossible to imagine Nightingale ever properly unfolding without Redgrave standing right by her side.

Through December 13
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center