Vivien: The Troubled World of Vivien Leigh
There's a wonderful intimacy about director Peter Sander's production of Rick Foster's solo play, Vivien, which features Janis Stevens in a praiseworthy performance as Vivien Leigh. The tiny Beckman Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors has only a handful of seats facing the playing space from opposite sides, with an imposing red brink wall on one side of the room and a solitary ghost light on the other. (A ghost light, as theatre people will tell you, is a single lamp placed on stage to keep the house from being in total darkness after everyone's gone. It's also meant to prevent ghosts from taking up residency in the theatre.) It's as though we are watching the play from the wings, with the actress never acknowledging us.
The ghost light is the first thing that grasps Ms. Leigh's attention as she enters the theatre, the earliest arrival to begin rehearsals for the London premiere of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, where she is to play the mentally unbalanced character, Agnes. Suffering from bi-polar disorder herself, Leigh will be dead from tuberculosis, at age 53, in a matter of days.
Going from relatively unknown actress to Hollywood star after her Oscar-winning turn as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, she was a honored by the Academy a second time for playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. But Foster downplays her triumphs and focuses on her professional rivalry with husband Lawrence Olivier. Although she played Ophelia to his Hamlet before achieving fame, Leigh never had the opportunity to perform Shakespeare on film, ("Shakespeare's women -- By the time you're old enough to understand them, you're too old to play them.") despite her pleading that they co-star in MacBeth.
The play follows no linear story. It's a more of a free association monologue revealing aspects of her life, focusing on career disappointments, her relationship with the great stage actor who cheated on her with both men and women, their madcap whirl of a social life and finally, the mental disturbance that lead to her electro-convulsive therapy treatments.
Stevens doesn't impersonate Vivien Leigh, but performs with a mannered elegance that gracefully conveys her essence. What keeps this always interesting matching of play, actress and production from truly soaring emotionally is that she's continually required to play at a high level of intensity, stifling her chance to give a fully textured performance and often making the piece seem like a ninety minute operatic mad scene. But still, Stevens is nicely understated even when Leigh is at her most unstable, and often shines with vibrancy, delicacy and intelligence in a very demanding role.