All in the Family

The great Lynn Redgrave explores her mother's 'Romeo and Juliet' obsession

What's in a name?" inquires Juliet in the Bard's famed tale of doomed love.

The answer, if the name happens to be Redgrave: Quite a bit, actually.

The family Redgrave is chock full of actors, awards and genuine fame borne from an impressive body of work spanning five generations. And if your name is Lynn Redgrave, you're also a skilled and passionate storyteller.

Lynn Redgrave, sponsored by the Invisible Theatre, is bringing her most recent venture to town for two performances. Rachel and Juliet, a one-woman show, is a tribute to her mother, Rachel Kempson, a highly respected actress, though she was not as storied as her husband, Sir Michael Redgrave. According to Lynn Redgrave, Kempson had a lifelong fascination with the role of Juliet, and would launch into passages from Romeo and Juliet throughout her life. She died in 2003, a few days before her 93rd birthday.

Redgrave, in a phone interview from her home in Connecticut, says Rachel and Juliet is still in development. She first workshopped it with an audience in June 2008 at Manhattan's Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. Then last spring, it ran for five performances at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., the location where she launched her career as a playwright.

"In 1991, the Folger had asked me to come and give an evening of readings, and I got to thinking what it might be like to actually write down something, give it form," she says. "So I set to work on a one-act play using Shakespeare's words to take the scenes from my life to another plane—a play about my father and my search for him.

"I didn't tell anyone about this, even the Folger. It was just an experiment. I had never considered myself a playwright."

This experiment went on to become Shakespeare for My Father, which in 1993 embarked on a 30-city tour and ended up at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. (She also performed Shakespeare for My Father in Tucson in 1996 at the Temple of Music and Art.)

The show received a Tony nomination and won Redgrave numerous other nominations and awards, both for acting and writing.

"I just was obsessed with my father when I began this process. I wanted reconciliation," she explains. "I did all these shows for all these years, and then suddenly one day, I felt it had happened: I was at peace with our relationship. And I didn't need to perform this anymore. So I haven't."

So is Rachel and Juliet an attempt to come to grips with issues with her mother?

"Oh, no, no. I had a perfectly lovely relationship with my mother," she responds. "This piece is entirely different."

Susan Claassen of the Invisible Theatre directed Redgrave when Chamber Music PLUS brought her to town in 2003.

"Lynn is a remarkable person as well as a fabulous performer," Claassen says. "She is so willing to be open and honest. And she is an exquisite writer. She creates vivid pictures, and she pays so much attention to the musicality of language."

As a youngster, Redgrave says, she had no urge to pursue the "family business." Instead, she wanted to be a professional equestrian. "I had been riding since I was 5, and I simply loved it and had actually been offered a position."

So what changed her mind?

"I went to see a very young, 22-year-old-Peter Hall-directed production of Twelfth Night. I saw it 17 times. That was it. I knew this was for me. It affected me so profoundly. I even call my home Illyria, and I have a dog named Viola."

She debuted in A Midsummer Night's Dream at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1962. In 1963, she appeared in the movie Tom Jones; in 1966, she starred in Georgy Girl, for which she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress; she was also nominated for an Academy Award. Later this year, she will be inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

Although she authored her autobiography, This Is Living, in 1991, playwriting efforts are a fairly recent addition to her professional output. Besides Shakespeare for My Father, she has written The Mandrake Root and Nightingale. The focus of her work is usually her family—and she does not hold back or sanitize.

Nonetheless, members of her famous family have never been critical of her work, she says. "They have always been totally supportive. Really, all playwrights write about their families—Neil Simon, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams. I certainly don't put myself in their class, but we write about what we know and what we care about.

"In Rachel and Juliet, I had the benefit of mother's own words published in her memoir. In some of the pieces, like Nightingale, I had to imagine so much. But every word in Rachel and Juliet is true."

So why was her mother so obsessed with Juliet, anyway?

"Oh," she demurs, "I can't tell you. You have to come see the show."

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