THEATER REVIEW: ‘Lillian’ echoes another era rife with scoundrels

“Lillian” / Taconic Stage Company

A ONE- OR TWO-PERSON PLAY is a good fit for the beautiful little structure atop a hill in Copake Falls. At the Church of St. John in the Wilderness, artistic director of Taconic Stage Company, Carl Ritchie, has found a warm and elegant home for his smaller productions. This summer it is “Lillian,” a monologue-summary of the life of playwright Lillian Hellman, author of “Toys In the Attic,” “The Little Foxes,” “The Children’s Hour,” et al.

The author of “Lillian” is William Luce, who has attracted some of the century’s most interesting actors to his work: Julie Harris (twice), Zoe Caldwell, George C. Scott, Christopher Plummer, Eva Marie Saint, Geraldine Page. In Copake Falls his Lillian is Diedre Bollinger, a local favorite. They are all more than he may deserve.

Among other good things, Diedre Bollinger has voice. That probably doesn’t sound like radical praise, but because voice is the main vehicle for all the hard-fought reality that actors seek, it is radical praise. Bollinger’s voice, laced with meaning, does the exact amount of decibels for the space. She has clarity of diction—I should say “dictions,” as she goes all over the map with pitch, regionalisms, rhythms, and accents, making quick, easy transitions among the characters in Hellman’s life and carrying the story.

Diedre Bollinger portrays Lillian Hellman in the one-woman play ‘Lillian’ at the Church of St. John in the Wilderness August 24 and 25. Photo contributed

After voice the second most crucial actor-thing that audiences read is physicality. Director Ritchie has kept the staging minimal; and it works, except for the actress’s over-busy head. The Bollinger head moves so much that it begins to seem merely an outlet for excess energy or tension—and a distraction from character. When suddenly she reins in the tic for Hellman to confront the House Un-American Activities Committee, her dramatic power is multiplied.

Yes, Lillian Hellman was one of the many victims of Joseph McCarthy’s vicious reign of error. It was in a time of lies and name-calling. (Does that resonate?) Lillian sat tall and was adamant in her refusal to name communists or communist sympathizers.

If my memory of the period serves, Hellman, in her public persona, was not as attractive or nice as Bollinger and Luce portray her. However, in this production, much human satisfaction comes from her delight in the love of her life, Dashiell Hammett–that famous alcoholic and author of detective fiction. Along with lots of stress and anger, the couple seems to have experienced a large and generous joy in their long connection.

Bollinger’s gift for comedy doesn’t get much of a workout in this play; but she gets the love for Hammett and the unsentimental, heart-rending finish exactly right.

See her do it through this coming weekend, August 24 or 25 at 7 pm. The Ritchie habit of offering tickets at $20 or pay-what-you-can at the door is still happening. The website is www.taconicstage.com.

Comments are closed.