By: Nancy Stetson; Saturday, November 5, 2005
As an actress and as a woman, Vivien Leigh was a force to be reckoned with. She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” (a role almost every actress in Hollywood coveted) and another for Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In her personal life she left her first husband for Laurence Olivier (who eventually left her for Joan Plowright). Hers was a life of high drama, onstage and off.
Marcy Lafferty captures that perfectly in her gripping one-woman show, “Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference.” Staged by Theatre Conspiracy in Fort Myers through Sunday, the show is a benefit for the venue, which runs on a shoestring and desperately needs the support. But buying a ticket for this show won’t feel like charity; it’s worth every penny. Lafferty, a New York stage and movie actress who also wrote the piece, has the audience under her spell from the second she glides into the theater. Wearing a plum-colored, tailored suit, black gloves and hat, and simple strand of pearls at her neck, she is the epitome of glamour, but not the cheap flashiness that passes for glamour today. Lafferty, as Leigh, exudes that sophisticated elegance that actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood possessed. She takes control immediately, telling the theater’s lighting director how she wants to be lit on stage. This is a woman accustomed to being in the spotlight. Even in a dimly lit room, she’d be luminescent.
The play hangs on the format of a press conference, but it’s not as contrived as one might fear. Initially breezy and informal, Leigh makes small talk with invisible reporters before talking about herself and her career. While she narrates her life, Leigh also re-enacts certain portions of it, acting scenes from her plays and movies, quoting Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, impersonating David O. Selznick, Marlon Brando and Margaret Mitchell, among others.
Lafferty is a brilliant actor, changing voice, stance and speech to portray a variety of people in Leigh’s life. There may be one actor onstage, but there are numerous characters. Lafferty is pitch-perfect in this performance. She plays a rainbow of emotions, including excitement, hope, disappointment, rage and love. She is, in turn, coquettish, lonely, seductive and dignified. And Lafferty does it all with such grace and ease, thanks to her enormous talent and direction from John Edw. Blankenchip. (Kudos also to Elliot King, who did Lafferty’s hair and makeup to evoke Vivien Leigh.)
Leigh tells of her whirlwind life, with plenty of behind-the-scene stories, including many that revolve around her experiences on “Gone With the Wind.” (She confesses at one point that Southern accents are difficult for Brits to do, talks about her screen test and explains how old sets at the studio were burned in order to make room for the voluminous sets for “Gone With the Wind.”) A versatile actress, Leigh performed everyone from Shakespeare to Wilder to Williams to Albee. But this play is as much a tribute to the theater as it is a tribute to Vivien Leigh.
“When I’m playing in the theater, I’m completely happy,” she claims. “I know what my life is.”
In the theater, “I’m never lonely. I don’t feel lost,” she says, adding that in her dressing room, “I just feel safe and happy.”
Leigh lived a life of extreme highs and lows: a great romantic love but wrenching heartbreak (“It’s very hard to get old and not have the one that you love.”), career successes and honors but also health problems and a battle with manic depression. And at the time of this press conference, she has TB. But, as she looks back at her life, she declares, “It’s been a great run.”
“Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference” only runs through Sunday. It’s a don’t-miss show.
Nancy Stetson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.