Looking for some counterprogramming to Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking? Well, Lynn Redgrave is no planet-hopping space princess, and not much of an intergalactic exhibitionist, either—her several autobiographical one-woman shows notwithstanding: No one showing up to her latest, Nightingale, will be asked to don a Georgy Girl wig. Redgrave, 66 and fighting a recurrent cancer, sits behind a desk: she on her side, we in the audience on ours. She never rises from her seat for the play’s 85 minutes, yet the performance she delivers—with emphasis, passion, and precision—is a quick and vital thing. Eyes aglint with sentiment and mischief, Redgrave kindles a small, bright fire in herself, and gathers us to her. It’s therapy, sure—a bit overwritten in some places, a tad underdone in others—but it never comes off sticky or indulgent. Doctor’s orders or no, that desk is there for a reason.
And so is the play’s central conceit, which similarly puts a buffer between messenger and message: Redgrave, whose 32-year marriage came to an end in 2000, searches out answers to her questions about the impermanence of life and the imperfections of love by channeling her maternal grandmother, Beatrice “Beanie” Kempson, a woman she barely knew. Beanie’s memory has been reduced to a near-illegible name on an acid-rain scalded headstone in a lonely English graveyard that she visits shortly after her divorce. Conjured and impersonated by her granddaughter in short monologues spanning an entire life, from girlhood to old age, Beanie initially presents as an emotional amputee and lifelong carnal naïf who puts sex in a class with surgery, withers in the shadow of free-spirited older sisters, and poisonously resents her passionate, talented daughter, Rachel—soon Lady Redgrave, the celebrated actress, matriarch of a thespian dynasty. Onstage, Redgrave uses this reconstructed Beanie as a voodoo doll for her own blunders and disappointments, as she briskly, briefly alludes to her own sex-challenged marriage—a desert island in a sea of swingin’ sixties sensuality—and (even more obliquely) to sororal rivalry. Often, she deplores Beanie’s pre-feminist bedroom follies, while simultaneously tweaking her own post-feminist ones. Here she is imagining her grandmother’s disastrous wedding night: “I hated being a virgin, but Beanie doesn’t even know she is one! I would pray that I could take a pill, go to sleep, and wake up with the deed done. But she knows nothing!” Decades, hemlines, and cultural upheaval aside, how different are these women, really?
By eclipsing herself with Beanie, Redgrave gives us more than mere confessional. She insists on making art. It is, after all, a bit more durable, and sometimes the best way to make your point is to keep your distance. Proper nouns are prone to acid rain; mere gossip doesn’t keep. And, as Redgrave keeps telling us, she hears the clock ticking. She’s lived and loved long enough to know what lasts, and what doesn’t.