FRESH from her Tony nomination for best actress, Lynn Redgrave settles back into the flower-print sofa, backstage at New York's Helen Hayes Theatre. "Shakespeare for My Father," the one-woman show she conceived and wrote that chronicles her relationship with her famed British actor father, Michael Redgrave, has just had its run extended, and she is enjoying a light dinner between matinee and evening shows.
"After my father's death in 1985, people - complete strangers - would say `I'm sorry about your father,' and then invariably they would talk about their own fathers," she recalls. In 1991, when the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington invited her to do a special program commemorating the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Shakespeare Society, an idea was born.
Instead of a simple evening of best-loved Shakespeare passages peppered with anecdotes, the actress seized the opportunity to fashion a short play, interspersing family history, theater lore, and well-known speeches. The evening was a great success and sparked a plan to expand it into full production. Given that the Folger audience was made up of Shakespeare aficionados, she wondered "would it play in Oklahoma?" It did. Following a tour through the United States, "Shakespeare for My Father" opened to cri tical and public acclaim on Broadway in April.
Redgrave's career has taken her from recognition in the 1966 film "Georgy Girl" while still a teenager, through years of classical and contemporary theater work in New York and London. Included along the way were such diverse projects as television situation comedy and the recent PBS Masterpiece Theatre miniseries "Calling the Shots."
This newest project, however, ties together personal and professional elements. She summoned the courage to explore her feelings about her father, by all accounts a distant, remote, and frequently absent parent.
"What is this relationship with this man, your father, who is the first man in your life?" she asked herself, recognizing from those initial comments following his death that almost everyone had some part of their lives touched by that most basic relationship.
"A search for a father is a fairly universal theme, and while this is about a daughter searching for a father, an equal number of men come up to me. You know, I wanted a `Little House on the Prairie' father. People would tell me how he'd been the life and soul of the party, and all I could feel was the most bitter jealousy and anger because that had not been my experience with him at all."
What audiences appreciate about "Shakespeare for My Father" is Redgrave's easy transitions between storytelling about her four-generation theater family, and the various selections she has chosen from the Bard's plays, woven together to sketch out the actress's life and feelings. The play is directed by her husband John Clark and performed on a spare stage with only a large wooden trunk, an armchair, a rug, and a portrait of her father.
Audiences with no more knowledge of Shakespeare than what is commonly taught in high school can readily enjoy the play's full meaning. Although many Americans believe that the English are better versed in Shakespeare, she points out that "they really aren't." And, she adds with a smile, "American audiences listen better."
Between bites of steamed vegetables and rice, she remembers her first trip to the United States, after the opening of "Georgy Girl."
"That was a once-in-a-lifetime giant role for a character actress. I knew there wouldn't be many of them, that I'd be the supporting clown for the rest of my life if I didn't get out of that situation."
People assumed she and the character were the same. So she lost weight, took a job in the play "Black Comedy," and began the process of reinventing herself. She was inspired by the work of British actresses Dorothy Tutin and Peggy Aschroft, as well as Australian Zoe Caldwell, who joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. "And I was a great Jeanne Moreau fan. I saw everything she did."
She does credit her father with giving some of the best advice possible to a young actor when she was starting out: "Work breeds work."
"If you have a choice between a not-so-good part, and no part, take that part, and do something with it. And you never know what it might lead to." And in fact, her initial decision to expand the Folger project into something more substantial testifies to that wisdom.
Redgrave's relationship with her father was strained until just before his death, when she got beyond his personal failings.
"I needed to forgive myself for feeling guilty about the bad thoughts I had about him," she says. "He was what he was, for better or worse, a difficult, tortured man who could be the joy of people's hearts or the nightmare of your life. It was his tragedy that he couldn't talk to me. It really wasn't mine. That was the growth on my part."