The late Lillian Hellman could scarcely have been treated with more unreserved admiration than by the creators of ``Lillian,'' at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. From Miss Hellman's memoirs and other sources, William Luce has assembled a fascinating assortment of biographical fragments. Under Robert Whitehead's discreet staging, Zoe Caldwell responds brilliantly to the contrasting serious and comic moods of the complex role. ``Lillian'' unfolds in a New York hospital on Jan. 10, 1961, as Miss Hellman keeps watch outside the room of the fatally ill Dashiell Hammett. Through vivid reminiscence and relayed conversations, ``Lillian'' moves fluidly from its heroine's New Orleans birthplace to New York, Hollywood, and other points on the Hellman compass. Miss Caldwell plays all of the major and most of the incidental passing characters. These include her philandering but affectionate father, her eccentric mother, assorted relatives, a beloved black nurse, passing celebrities like Dorothy Parker, and, above all, an idealized Dashiell Hammett. The famed detective novelist (who went to war for his country and to jail for his Communist sympathies) was Hellman's mentor and cherished friend over the course of their sometimes turbulent 30-year affair.
Caldwell relies on reserves of intellect, insight, and inner dynamism to animate the remembrance. Her portrayal is much more than a remarkable physical representation (false nose, carefully coiffed wig, and all). For the play's duration, she inhabits Hellman. The script abounds in gossipy anecdotes. ``Lillian'' is more concerned with Hellman, the personality, than with Hellman, the playwright.
Only in Hellman's much publicized 1952 appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee does Mr. Luce introduce unseen voices to heighten the dramatic effect. The sequence includes the Hellman letter to the committee in which she wrote: ``I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions.'' At a later point, she admits: ``I and too many like me took too long to find out what was going on in the Soviet Union.'' For an individual of such longstanding adherence to Soviet causes and belated awakening, the admission was, at the least, an understatement.
``Lillian'' perpetuates the Hellman mystique in a way that will gladden her admirers and do nothing to disarm her detractors. It is, however, as a stage work of fact and imagination that it must ultimately be considered. In this context, Caldwell and her colleagues have created a theater piece that proves consistently absorbing and entertaining. That ``Lillian'' is a portrait in full length rather than in full depth doesn't detract from its achievement as a Broadway entertainment.
The play's minimal setting was designed by Ben Edwards, with atmospheric lighting by Thomas Skelton and enhancing incidental music by David Gooding. Miss Caldwell's smart gray suit was fashioned by Jane Greenwood. ``Lillian'' is scheduled to run through Feb. 23.