Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale
(© Joan Marcus)
Lynn Redgrave in Nightingale
(© Joan Marcus)
Perhaps Lynn Redgrave's most prominent trait as an actress is her honesty. Now, her honesty -- about herself and her family -- shines like a beacon throughout Nightingale, her engaging solo piece at Manhattan Theatre Club's Center Stage I.

The 80-minute work, sensitively directed here by Joseph Hardy, focuses on the life of her maternal grandmother, Beatrice Ashwell Kempson, an aloof woman who was so remote and whose history was so sketchy -- even to her family -- that Redgrave has had to imagine much of it.

Using the unsatisfyingly few -- and often hardscrabble -- facts she has at her disposal, Redgrave has constructed a tale of a life made up primarily of melancholy, bittersweet, and dolorous episodes -- not the least of which is the honeymoon Beatrice and her groom, Eric Kempson, endured. Redgrave's depiction of the two virgins fumbling through these events -- and eventually settling into loveless cohabitation -- brings the portrait of an entire uninformed, painfully innocent generation to mind.

As Redgrave delivers Beatrice's life story -- while seated at a dark wooden desk and before a large folding-screen featuring period postcards (designed by Tobin Ost) -- she also provides glimpses of her own history. She includes a peek at her own unhappy 32-year marriage to John Clark, whom she met when she was 23 and indiscriminately eager for romance, and makes references (though not by name) to the untimely death of her niece, Natasha Richardson.

It's said that all writing is therapy, and it's likely that all of Redgrave's plays -- which include Shakespeare for My Father (in which she comes to grips with her renowned parent, actor Michael Redgrave) are attempts to understand herself through understanding her family and her origins. Between the lines of Nightingale, there's definitely the indication of a woman courageously grappling with her own problems. By allying herself with her forebears -- and by examining their lives -- she's obviously hoping to reach some comfort. At the same time, Redgrave is offering a universal look at how people try to explain themselves to themselves.

Several times in her confessional, Redgrave mentions that the endeavor enables her to hold her grandmother's hand. Her urgent and unflagging need to make that metaphorical link, even if it requires a searching imagination, is almost unbearably poignant.