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Theater Review: Vivien

click to enlarge Janis Stevens as Vivien Leigh
  • Janis Stevens as Vivien Leigh

The two-year quest to cast the perfect Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind is the stuff of Hollywood legend. When the frenzied search began, immediately after the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell's Civil War novel, Vivien Leigh was a 23-year-old British stage actress virtually unknown in the United States. Yet she connected with the story's heroine with such passion that she felt destined to play the Southern belle. Leigh gave copies of the book to everyone she knew, signed them "Scarlett," and cleverly elbowed her way into the casting fray.

When Leigh first met with producer David O. Selznick on the GWTW set, filming had begun without a leading lady. The burning of Atlanta took place behind them as their exhaustive journeys finally intersected: hers, to get the role, and his, to find the ideal Scarlett, after considering every name actress of the era, as well as thousands of unknown wannabes. Performer and character matched flawlessly, as a 1939 New York Times review of the film noted: "She is so perfectly designed for the part by art and nature that any other actress in the role would be inconceivable." Leigh won the 1939 Academy Award for her performance.

Just as Leigh captured the iconic Scarlett, so actress Janis Stevens embodied the legendary Leigh in Rick Foster's remarkable one-woman play Vivien. The show came to Montpelier in a production exchange between Lost Nation Theater and Maine's Theater at Monmouth; they're seeing David Budbill's Judevine. Foster and Stevens have collaborated on Vivien for a decade, and the result was a polished and powerful evening of theater.

Vivien takes place shortly before Leigh's premature death at age 53, from a recurrence of the tuberculosis that she may have contracted while visiting and performing for British troops in North Africa during World War II. The action unfolds over one day in July 1967, on a London stage, when the actress shows up early to read for a part in a new Edward Albee play, A Delicate Balance.

Since no one else has arrived, Vivien has time for reverie about her life on and off the stage. The word "balance" provides a fitting point of departure for her thoughts, since mental stability often eluded Leigh. A serious case of manic depression brought swings of mood and behavior that increasingly disrupted her life, requiring eventual bouts of hospitalization and shock treatment.

As she alternates between memories and reflections, Vivien chats with old friends such as Noel Coward, Winston Churchill and Katharine Hepburn. She re-enacts scenes from her favorite Shakespearean roles - Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra - while tossing in a few lines from her more famous film characters. And she talks frankly about the "strong-minded little visitors" of her illness: "Madame Mania" and the "Duchess of Darkness."

But mostly, Vivien relives her tempestuous Great Love with Laurence Olivier. Even though they were both married when they met, she was as certain of their destiny to be together as she was about getting the role of Scarlett. Their marriage lasted 20 years, with personal and professional lives deeply entwined. Vivien reviews the disintegration of the epic relationship. As she recreates it onstage, we see how Leigh's delicate health contributes, as does Olivier's fragile ego. The night she wins her Oscar for GWTW, he loses for Wuthering Heights, and threatens to bash her brains out with her statuette.

The playwright includes a wealth of detail, painting Leigh with the loving luminosity of a Vermeer. The rich layers form a complex portrait of a soul both tortured and triumphant. Small moments are both telling and memorable. Vivien remembers waking up alone in the hospital after days of sedation and shock treatments - Olivier and her mother have left town. Coward's flowers and a card with four precious words from a friend - "Get well, dear Viv" - keep watch over her bedside. "Noel, I have carried that note in my purse for 14 years. I just need you to know that," she says quietly.

Stevens brilliantly conjured these lump-in-the-throat moments, as well as Leigh's feistier, funnier side. She inhabited her character so completely that her performance felt like an evening with the real aging star, not the recreation of a long-dead one.

Without straining to mimic Leigh in any way, Stevens created a remarkable physical resemblance. Her carriage, diction and movement had the grace of a mid-century English lady of the theater. Amazingly, too, Stevens seemed able to age her face 20 years in an instant, shifting from young to old Vivien. Just by looking up or down, she caught a sparkle from the lights in her eye or lined her face with subtle shadows. Director Peter Sander and lighting designer James McNamara certainly deserve credit for helping Stevens bring about these transformations.

Stevens moved effortlessly through Vivien's wide range of emotions: fire, enthusiasm, flirtatiousness and passion; fear, insecurity, anger and sadness. Like Foster, she focused on details: from a dead-on imitation of Kate Hepburn to an uncertain moment when Vivien's hands shake as she brushes hair off her forehead. Throughout the play, she maintained a husky, slightly worn edge to her voice - appropriate to the ravages of age and TB.

Kim Bent's set, based on Ron Madonia's design, gave Stevens plenty of room to roam as Vivien re-imagines scenes from her life. The sparsely furnished space represented a cross-section of a stage, backstage and a dressing room. A chaise longue became a raft and a bed; a ladder served as the mental hospital's prison bars, as well as a treatment gurney. Gail Russell's elegant costumes were strewn about the set, some heaped carelessly in piles on the floor. Stevens donned them over a black slip as needed: Antigone's toga, Scarlett's gown, Lady Olivier's party dress.

But Stevens spent most of the show barefoot, in the slip and a fuchsia dressing gown. This wasn't a metaphor for "exposing" Vivien Leigh. Rather, the humble dressing room is where the actress feels most at home. Early in the play, she explains: "When I go out on stage I play my role for the night. When I go out in the world I play the role of 'Vivien Leigh.' But here, in my dressing room, I can play - no! I can be anyone - even myself."

Today's 24/7 media beast feeds voraciously on celebrities' personal travails, with zoom lenses catching every stumble and entertainment "reporters" dissecting every misstep. So Vivien is especially refreshing for what it doesn't do: sensationalize the story of a truly troubled star. Foster's script treats Leigh with compassion and sensitivity. He doesn't sugarcoat the brutal realities of her ill health or unstable personal life, but he never resorts to the melodramatic clichés of "mad actress" or "temperamental diva."

Rather, Vivien Leigh comes across as a woman trying to make her marriage work, fighting to carve out a meaningful career and struggling to manage an unmanageable illness. This gives Vivien, the play, a surprising universality, and perhaps pays even greater tribute to the actress than Foster and Stevens intended. The playwright and performer have pulled back the curtain - thoughtfully and respectfully - and given us a richly three-dimensional picture of someone most of us have known only on celluloid. The real Vivien Leigh maintained courage, grace and pluck in the face of difficult circumstances - much like a certain Margaret Mitchell heroine she once played.

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