Thursday, December 20, 2007


It’s a very special actor who can bring a legendary figure to life and make it believable, without making it a caricature. Some examples are Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, Jim Brochu’s Zero Mostel, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote, and Judy Davis’ Judy Garland. Now Janis Stevens has come along and provided us a magnificent Vivien Leigh, currently gracing the stage at Sacramento Theater Company, under the direction of Peter Sander.

It was while working together at Sierra Repertory Theater that Stevens and playwright Rick Foster developed the idea for “Vivien,” no doubt inspired at least in part by the actress’ remarkable resemblance to Vivien Leigh. But it is Foster’s delicately woven script, combined with Stevens’ resemblance and her ease at inhabiting the character which makes this play work so beautifully.

From the moment one enters the “Stage Two” theater, one is instantly “in” the theater. Scenic designer Myke Kunkel has created the feel of a backstage gone to seed – a ladder draped with red velvet, a chaise on which other material and props rest, bits of scenery tossed here and there, fading posters on the wall, and the ever present ghost light illuminating the dark.

A friend of mine, who knew Vivien Leigh years ago when she was appearing on Broadway, told me that at the end of every performance she floated out onto the stage for her bow and then suddenly turned and seemed shocked to discover that there were 2,000 people who had been watching her for the past two hours. The description aptly describes the ethereal persona which Stevens embodies, as she glides into the darkened theater, ostensibly to read for an upcoming production of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

The audience quickly realizes that things are not happening in real time. The play is set in 1967, just before Leigh’s death, at age 53, from tuberculosis. It begins as the infamous “actor’s nightmare,” finding onself on stage, in underwear, unsure of which play is being presented and what exactly are the lines.

But as the play progresses, the intricacies of Leigh’s life are revealed, including her tempestuous marriage to Lawrence Olivier (“Larry Boy,” she calls him), which brought her some of the greatest joys and deepest pain in her life. We learn her feelings about the movie roles which defined her – Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar Named Desire” and, of course, Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” roles of which she is proud and yet minimizes the performances, as her real love was acting on the stage.

She describes winning her first Oscar (for “Gone with the Wind”) and the problems that caused for her overlooked husband (who lost to Robert Donat’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), so much so that she hid it away until he finally won his award years later.

The longer the 90 minute, one-act performance continues, the more blatant is the actress’ manic-depression evident. She has imaginary conversations with Noel Coward, Winston Churchill, John Gielgud, and Peter Finch, each of which peels back another layer of the veneer and gives us a deeper glimpse into the demons of the woman. Stevens floats effortlessly between the complex, overlapping emotions.

Stevens, like Leigh, is by turn coquettish, seductive, petulant, angry, seamlessly moving from mood to mood.

We get bits and pieces of her most famous roles, and marvel at her ability to create the role of Lady Macbeth, for example, while at the same time ranting against Olivier for never making the movie which would have given her the opportunity to play the role for a wider audience. Again, here is the beautiful marriage of actress and playwright, the scene magnificently written and deliciously presented. Over and over again one is aware of the way the two artists have brought out the best in each other.

The 90 minutes flew by and the audience rose in a body to give Janis Stevens a well deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of the performance, including, I noted, a seasoned reviewer in the front row who rarely stands for anything. High praise indeed, and well earned.

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