93 Minutes With Lynn Redgrave

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Lynn Redgrave wants to go for a walk in the park and not talk about her health. This despite the fact that she overcame breast cancer in 2003 and then, as previews began for her self-penned one-woman show, Nightingale—an imagining of the unhappy, unfulfilled, undocumented life of her maternal grandmother—the Times reported that she was in treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. For what, exactly, she and her reps wouldn’t disclose, saying only that it was not for a recurrence of cancer. But the side effects of her new treatment meant she’d have her script onstage.

When I saw her in previews, seated at a little desk, up close to her audience at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space, virtuosically shifting accents, moods, and periods of time to narrate the conjectural life of a repressed, chilly Victorian-era woman who lived and died far outside the celebrity orbit of her offspring (her daughter Rachel married actor Sir Michael Redgrave and birthed Lynn, Corin, and Vanessa), Redgrave, 66, barely seemed to glance at her script. She came off as perfectly focused and healthy, just as she does when I meet up with her today. We set off, publicist and rescue dog Viola in tow, from her home at the baroque Osborne on 57th and Seventh, saying good-bye to her youngest child, Annabel, 28, a photographer, who’s heading out to take pictures of her aunt Vanessa.

But Redgrave still doesn’t want to expand on the questions raised by the Times item. “I don’t talk about it,” she says briskly, dressed in a suede jacket with trees stenciled on it and sensible black pants and shoes. “I’m fortunate enough to be one of the few for whom, basically, things move slowly enough that it’s like having a chronic disease.” She adds proudly that she’s never missed a show because of cancer or its treatment.

Okay, fair enough. We talk a bit about Nightingale. She imagines her grandmother as having had a long, dutiful, loveless marriage. Were there parallels in her own long marriage to showbiz guy John Clark, whom she divorced in 2000 after he revealed that—ready for this?—he was the secret father of their son’s wife’s child? Not exactly, she says. But, she allows, during their marriage, “I felt there was something wrong with me sexually. And then I discovered it was not true. But not through him!” But during the marriage, right? “Oh, absolutely. But,” she clarifies, “I didn’t have a 32-year affair.”

She got her dog (who, yes, is named for the Twelfth Night heroine) in early 2003, in the middle of her chemo, just three years after her marriage ended. “I thought, I need a dog because I’m gaining weight and I didn’t feel so fit,” she says, “but if I have a dog, I’ll have to take it out and that’ll be more important than whether I feel like walking.” In the park now, approaching the Heckscher Ballfields (where Redgrave’s son, Ben, played Little League in the seventies), we stop so Viola can nuzzle with a cute Cairn terrier. Redgrave recounts first meeting Viola at a shelter: “I said to her, ‘Do you want to be my dog and come live in my house?’ ”—her voice seems to break here—“and she came and lay in my lap, and that was it.”

We sit on a bench. Since her onstage script and seatedness could easily be a dramaturgical choice, why did she bother disclosing an undisclosed medical condition? “I would not have announced it,” she grumbles. “I had to tell Manhattan Theatre Club, and they felt that subscribers needed to know why I was sitting.” She notes that Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell is performed seated.

Then something perhaps a bit too coincidental happens. Her publicist Rick Miramontez’s phone rings, and he says it’s Manhattan Theatre Club’s longtime artistic director Lynne Meadow for Redgrave. I don’t turn my tape off, and they don’t ask me to. Redgrave takes the call standing next to us. It goes, with some excerpts for space, like this: “Hellooo?”—very plummy and theatrical—“I’m in the middle of an interview with New York Magazine, Lynne, I’m promoting the show! … What day is it coming out, the interview?” (She’s referring to a Times interview about the show.) “Next Sunday? … The answer will be no … I’ll tell you the truth, tomorrow is my last … so, so, no, by the time it comes out on Sunday, the truth will be that I’m not … in treatment. I’m not in treatment anymore. Tomorrow’s the last day … um, I think you can leave that out, Lynne, honestly … I think so because this, as you know, you have your own personal experience, so you know that, you know, it’s on, it’s off … And to those of us who are like you and me, sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, damn,’ but basically it’s just what we do, so it’s not as big an issue as to people who think, ‘Oh my God!’ ” The rest of the call is mostly chipper pleasantries.

She hands the phone back to Miramontez. What was that about? “Oh, well it was a private call between me and Lynne Meadow!” she says cheerily, laughing along with Miramontez.

Back at the Osborne, big boxes have arrived for her: a rug from Urban Outfitters and an armchair she got from overstock.com. She loves overstock.com. She got a bed there for about $300, shortly before seeing it at Gracious Home for around $1,000, she says. Her daughter Pema, who changed her name from Kelly after she became a Buddhist, is coming to stay with her tomorrow, and she wants to have some nice new things for her apartment. After all, she notes, “I’m going to be here for ages.”

93 Minutes With Lynn Redgrave