Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale
(© Craig Schwartz)
Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale
(© Craig Schwartz)
How do you remember someone you scarcely knew? How is immortality achieved for a woman who lived more in shadows than in spotlights, who lacked the confidence and self-awareness that would later blossom in her children and grandchildren, who grew distant and sour from accumulated decades of jealousies, losses and regrets? When award-winning actress Lynn Redgrave went looking for her grandmother's grave, she found the spot where the woman was buried -- but the headstone was blank. Over the years, acid rain had washed away the carved words until only smooth stone remained.

The experience prompted Redgrave to consider how history and time will recall those whose passing is marked only by the recollections of those who knew them. The result is Nightingale, Redgrave's beautifully written and performed solo show, which is making its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. It becomes the third in a series of autobiographical shows about members of her famous family. (The others are Shakespeare for My Father and The Mandrake Root, inspired, respectively, by her father, Michael Redgrave, and her mother, Rachel Kempson.)

Essentially, Redgrave has fictionalized her grandmother's life -- she's now called Mildred Asher -- basing it on what bits of information her mother had shared with her and what little she, herself, could recall. The story of Millie's life is told in 11 separate scenes, each as a shimmering fragment of memory and ranging in time from 1904 to 1973. Director Joseph Hardy keeps each of these scenes quite distinct by having Redgrave travel in and out of scenic designer Tobin Ost's series of tall gossamer screens covered with delicately depicted images of her life, cleanly lit by Rui Rita. The effect is simple and often poignant, and also keeps a relatively smooth flow to the approximately 90-minute intermissionless show.

Young Millie, as Redgrave tells us, grew up in an era in which societal standards took precedence over all, and physical, emotional and sexual repression was the order of the day. As a child, Millie's mother told her she was cursed, and the girl pleaded with God to lift the monthly pain and bleeding. As a woman, she entered marriage with a collection of lovely handmade nightgowns, terrible anxiety about the wedding night, and absolutely no idea about what would be expected of her by the rather indifferent man she had wed but didn't really love.

There is a gentle, easy poetry to Redgrave's writing, and a lovely subtlety to her shifts in Millie's voice, age, and attitude. The initial girlish enthusiasm gradually becomes stare-ahead surrender to an empty adult existence marked by the endless tick-tocking of the household clock. Her nervousness at falling in love with a gentle farmer she met on a summer holiday in Devon eventually becomes despair at not being able to actually have the love she wants.

Moreover, her heart and soul begin to harden even further over jealousy at her daughter's happy marriage and success on the stage, and guilt and devastation at the wartime death of her cherished son, which she believed she could have prevented. Her voice becomes colder and her demeanor more unapproachable. The spring has gone from her step and she moves more carefully. Her shoulders become a bit stooped, her mouth gets pinched at the corners, and she peers out at the world with accusatory eyes.

By the end of the tale, Millie has become the distant and sour grandmother Redgrave remembers -- a woman who denied her a sugar mouse cookie on Christmas Eve. But now she is more than just a blank headstone; she has become real to a group of strangers sitting together in a darkened theatre. And that is a wonderful kind of immortality in and of itself.