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For the Redgraves, Mother's Day Is on Stage

By Susan SaccocciaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 1998



SPRINGFIELD, MASS.

Many mothers will spend this Sunday, Mother's Day, at home with their families. But to a mother and daughter who bring hundreds of people to life on stage, a theater is home.

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Last Saturday, StageWest, a small theater in Springfield, Mass., became an intimate salon as Vanessa Redgrave and her mother, Rachel Kempson (Lady Redgrave), performed the world premire of "Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town," a highlight of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts.

Redgrave crafted the program, which she describes as a "recital based on [newly discovered] Chekhov short stories and favorite Chekhov women." A decade ago, the mother-daughter duo collaborated in another collage of scenes devised by Redgrave, "Chekhov's Women," at the Lyric Theatre near London.

Entering a stage set that evoked a faded parlor with a few tables and chairs, Kempson came out first, wearing a long white pinafore. With her creamy complexion and white hair in a chignon, she was an Alice in Wonderland in beautiful maturity.

She launched the speech of Carlotta that opens Act II in "The Cherry Orchard." "I don't know how old I really am. I just think of myself as young. When I was a little girl, Mama and my father used to travel around to fairs and put on shows, good ones. I did back flips, things like that ..."

It was a spirited and poignant introduction from a woman who has nurtured three generations of actors. Kempson began her own stage career in 1933, as Juliet in Stratford-on-Avon, England, and has also acted in 20 films.

Her late husband, Sir Michael Redgrave, was a star of stage and screen, and their children, Vanessa, Corin, and Lynn, as well as their grandchildren, have careers in the theater.

Her oldest daughter, Vanessa, regarded as one of the greatest English-speaking actresses of her generation, strode down the aisle strumming a guitar and singing, a comic Yepikhdov greeting Carlotta.

The two actresses continued their hour-long tour de force without intermission, transcending gender, age, and era in scenes that varied from moments of music-hall mirth to the desolation of Redgrave's Nina in "The Seagull," whom she played as a broken, middle-aged woman.

Performing the story that gives the program its title, "Sarah Bernhardt Comes to Town," the two play six characters. They react to the arrival of Bernhardt, the grand dame of stage in Chekhov's day. Redgrave drums her fingers as the bristling editor demanding a story from his star-struck reporter, and as the editor's irked wife, Kempson warns him in a cockney accent not to come home without tickets.

As one scene ends, Redgrave pours a hot drink from a silver samovar and serves it to her mother, kissing her hand. The lights dim and she walks off the stage.

Lit by the warm glow of the kerosene lamp, Kempson begins her reading of "Lady With a Dog," perhaps Chekhov's greatest short story.

As she tells of the meeting of a jaded Moscow civil servant and a young woman "in the strange light of a summer at Yalta," Kempson's voice captures all the irony, intrigue, and tenderness in Chekhov's words.

This is the voice that Vanessa heard reading to her as a child. No wonder she and her brother and sister became actors.

An enthralled audience has joined the Redgrave family circle for an evening.

Redgrave encouraged a new generation of Ninas, Olgas, and Treplevs by conducting a master class at Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley. On stage with nine college students, she observed each perform a passage from Chekhov.

Helping the young actors to mine their characters, she said, "Chekhov writes very short sentences. We work like a road drill to find out what's going on there.... Rather late in life I find I'm asking more and more questions."