NEW YORK — The tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip is as fixed in British culture as is the notion of rugged individuality in American popular entertainment.
For British-born actress Lynn Redgrave, tradition plays out in two ways: her own upbringing in a family of well-known actors, and her current role as the tradition-bound matron Mrs. Culver in Somerset Maugham's comedy, "The Constant Wife," now enjoying an extended run on Broadway.
"It's always been a sort of tradition in my family," she says, refilling a china cup from the cozy-covered teapot in her comfortable Manhattan apartment. It's about "a fantastic resilience, and a total work ethic thing - a very down-to-earth, get-on-with-it approach" to both acting and living. For Redgrave, whose personal life has served up challenge after challenge, it's refreshing for her to perform in "The Constant Wife," the summer's surprise hit.
The play, set in 1920s London, involves people who had lots of leisure time; they held house parties, played tennis, rode horses, and wore the proper attire for everything, from dinner to croquet, as she describes it.
Redgrave's character discovers that the husband of her daughter Constance, portrayed with delightful abandon by Kate Burton, has been having an affair. Mortified, she tries to shield Constance, and offers what she considers sound advice: "Turn a blind eye publicly, go and stay with Mother, and wait until he crawls back and begs for forgiveness."
To her consternation, Constance completely ignores her. Constance's solution: Acknowledge that marriage has evolved into something else, start an independent career, and perhaps take a lover of her own.
Today, Maugham is known primarily as a novelist, although for a period in the 1920s he was one of the West End's most prolific playwrights. "There's a famous cartoon showing four theaters in a row bearing his name," recalls Redgrave, "and off to the side is Shakespeare, biting his nails and looking quite worried." Maugham wrote 35 plays during his long career.
"Every night, it's such a joy to do this piece," she says with a laugh, "because audiences find it so incredibly contemporary. Constance, who by now is well into her 30s, decides she's not going to weep or react badly. She's just going to get on with it." And for Redgrave, getting on with it has been a personal daily choice for the last decade.
Following what she calls the apocalyptic breakup of her long marriage to producer John Clark, she was diagnosed with cancer. Determined to triumph over the disease, she and her daughter, photographer Annabel Clark, documented her struggle in a book, hoping that it would inform and inspire women faced with a similar challenge.
"By the time I was born, my dad [Sir Michael] had already become a movie star and my mother [Rachel Kempson] enjoyed wonderful success as an actress, but they both came from very modest backgrounds, and never let us forget that you must learn to do for yourselves. Keep your feet on the ground."
After the disintegration of Redgrave's marriage, another family member surfaced in her life: her maternal grandmother Beatrice Kempson.
On a visit to her childhood home, where sister Vanessa still lives, Redgrave decided early one morning to stroll to the cemetery where her grandparents were buried. She discovered that the names on the gravestones had eroded away, a result of acid rain, and it launched in her a drive to see that her grandmother's life would not be forgotten. So she wrote "Nightingale," a one-woman show scheduled for the Women Center Stage Festival on Aug. 30 in New York. An earlier play she wrote, "Shakespeare for my Father," enjoyed a Broadway run in 1995 and received a Tony nomination.
"There's a surprising similarity that has emerged," Redgrave observes. "Both 'Nightingale,' about a plain brown bird-woman who only comes to life at night, and Mrs. Culver and Constance in 'The Constant Wife,' represent women battling with their inner demons of insecurity, of wanting love, and of the issues that women face regularly, but are rarely expressed openly or honestly in solid theatrical presentations, either through drama or humor."
Audience demand has been strong enough to extend the run of "The Constant Wife" at the Roundabout Theatre until the end of the month.
Her imminent Merchant/Ivory movie "White Countess," is due out in the fall, and provided a rare opportunity for her to work with sister Vanessa and niece Natasha Richardson. As for family tradition, "I can only guess that we've all absorbed it from one generation to the next. We all sort of 'do' for ourselves, something our parents made certain we learned by watching their example."
In her apartment, the photos of children and grandchildren lining the walls attest silently to the fact that the tradition is, in fact, being passed along.
• For more information on 'Nightingale,' visit www.womencenterstage.com.