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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Mandrake Root at San Jose Repertory Theatre

Also see Richard's review of The Eviction


The San Jose Repertory Theatre recently concluded one of their prize productions starring award winning Lynn Redgrave in the play she wrote, The Mandrake Root. The sold out production closed on Sunday, February 24. This drama was presented in association with the Long Wharf Theatre where it first appeared last winter. Ms. Redgrave did extensive revisions of the drama for the San Jose debut. What was presented was a tight, well-written, unforgettable tale of a mother who is a retired actress visiting her lesbian daughter in Santa Barbara. The play shines with integrity, unconstrained poetry and some unexpected twists.

The Mandrake Root is somewhat based on Ms. Redgrave's actress mother Rachel Kempson, wife of famed actor Michael Redgrave. It is known that Ms. Kempson had an unhappy marriage because of the carousing of her homosexual husband. The Mandrake Root refers to a powerful aphrodisiac, hallucinogen and poison, and is used to describe the sexuality of the character "Rose" in the play. Ms. Redgrave plays Rose as a plucky 80 year-old British woman visiting her daughter Sally in Santa Barbara, California. Rose is not well; she is mentally unstable. She is loving at one moment and vengeful the next. This is a tour de force from one of the great actresses of this generation. The drama shows the difficult relationship between a lesbian daughter and the mother who disdains her daughter's sexuality.

The play goes back and forth through time very smoothly and we see Rose age from a naive 22 year-old to an octogenarian in a matter of seconds. She loved her gay husband very much but was tormented by her husband's inattention to her and his philandering liaisons with other men. Rose relates to her 10 year-old daughter Sally more as an advantageous symbol for the husband's image than as the object of a loving mother. Ms. Redgrave is at the top of her craft to be able to portray both an 80 year-old and a 23 year-old woman with no apparent effort whatsoever. Kudos for an amazing performance.

Cynthia Mace as the adult Sally held her own against Ms. Redgrave's performance. As the narrator of the play, she played Sally with great emotionalism and a deep feeling for the character. Her confrontational scenes with Rose were incredible.

David Adkins and Keith Langsdale were the sole males in this production. They were underplayed and really had nothing to do. Mr. Adkins as the gay actor husband had a beautiful British cultured voice while Mr. Langsdale did what he could as Rose's secret heterosexual lover.

Outstanding was Mercedes Herrero who played six roles including Sally's lesbian lover, a nun, a nurse and the male lover of the gay actor. She was deft in all of these roles. The cast was rounded out by a highly professional ten year-old actress, Jullian Lee Wheeler, who played the young Sally. She is a wonderful and natural little actress.

Director Warner Shook staged the drama simply and he kept the action flowing smoothly. The cavernous stage was mostly empty with the exception of walls sliding on and off to create small scenes with a minimal of furniture. The lighting by Rui Rita was very important in creating certain moods and he did a bang up job. This production is a jewel in the crown for this season's San Jose Rep company which is fast becoming a major regional company in the Bay Area. Next up will be the world premiere of Lynn Nottage's Las Meninas which opens on March 16, and runs through April 14. You can obtain tickets for that production by calling (408)367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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