If you think you know all about Vivien Leigh, English actress of stage and screen, from watching Gone With the Wind, think again. Marcy Lafferty, star and writer of the dazzling new one-woman show Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference, offers an engaging and insightful look into the life of this iconic theatrical legend, fleshing out the stories that make up Leigh's tumultuous personal life and public career.
The one-person bio play isn't anything new, and if anything, can easily turn into a boring unimaginative theatrical exercise. Lafferty, though, both as writer and performer, brings a visceral intimacy to this piece (housed in the fifty-seat theater space of the 59E59 Theaters) that gives the piece more the feel of a Hollywood confessional full of gossip and anecdotes than a schematic "birth to death" biography. Structured as her "final press conference" where she fields questions from interviewers, Lafferty as Leigh brings a sense of ease and familiarity to Leigh's tales, which though presented fairly chronologically, bounce from past to present in a tell-all of romantic and theatrical conquests.
Based on the actual words of Vivien Leigh, Lafferty's piece reveals an actress who is so much more than her role of Scarlett O'Hara. Leigh's life, as organized by Lafferty, focuses on two major themes, her romance with Sir Lawrence Olivier, and her passion for treading the theatrical boards. For lovers of Gone With the Wind, the play provides its fair share of behind-the-scenes stories and gossip from censorship problems concerning the word "damn" in the film to David Selznick's maneuvering to keep Leigh and Olivier apart so that their adulterous affair would stay out of the papers. Despite her career-defining connection with the 1939 epic, Leigh was a creature of the theater who openly disdained the falsity of Hollywood and film. Arguably her true pleasure was derived from playing Shakespeare with Olivier and starring in such plays as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Skin of Our Teeth. Still, Leigh shared with Scarlett a strong sense of tenacity, and when Leigh wanted something, she often got it. For her this meant marrying Olivier after a short affair with him, and finding success as an actress, which brought her two Oscars and a Tony Award.
Having played Vivien Leigh in several prior engagements including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a run in Los Angeles, Lafferty is clearly at home with this part and truly inhabits the skin of the British actress. If Lafferty doesn't particularly look like Leigh, that's of little concern as her performance is warm and honest, and she holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she shares each anecdote. Under John Edw. Blankenchip's direction, Lafferty flits about the stage, rarely standing still, and yet her mannerisms and actions are never gratuitous or out of place. Each movement of her hands, each time she strokes her hair, each sip of water, is organic and revealing of the character.
Despite the easiness and composure that Lafferty brings to the piece as she sweeps into the theater with Norma Desmond-like elegance, attired in sunglasses, simple purple dress, and large black hat, as we soon learn, Leigh's life wasn't all peaches and cream. Lafferty's moving and finely-honed performance encompasses not only the triumphs of Leigh's career, but also her descent into madness at the end of her life, an imbalance that required electroshock therapy. Leigh was also plagued with chronic tuberculosis (which ultimately killed her), and the devastation of a miscarriage. Accordingly, Lafferty finds the sense of loss and tragedy in these events, providing audiences with a nuanced and well-rounded portrait of the actress.
If Leigh's life was less a wild roller coaster than that of some individuals, her personal triumphs and tragedies still register loudly. Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference will undoubtedly inspire new fans of Leigh's work, and Lafferty amiably rescues the fascinating life of this actress from the annals of theater history.
Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference