From arguably the most accomplished stage family to come out of Britain in the 20th century, Lynn Redgrave recreating the life of an ancestor harbingers an evening of historic insights and secrets. That presumption may lead some to be disappointed when they find that Ms. Redgrave’s Nightingale, currently in its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is about a woman who, if she existed at all, has been justifiably forgotten.
Ms. Redgrave’s parents were Rachel Kempson and Michael Redgrave — the latter the focus of her earlier one-woman effort, Shakespeare for my Father. This new script gets real footing by naming the Kempsons as well as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave, Lynn's siblings. But facts get fuzzy as the story recedes into history. Ms. Redgrave's grandmother's actress daughter is named Rose, not Rachel, and Rose's husband is not Michael but a non-actor named Robert. These 'face value' questions are solved in Michael Ritchie’s candid program note, which explains that Ms. Redgrave is in fact weaving three stories: hers, her real grandmother's, and that of a fictional grandmother named Mildred. Because we have no way of unraveling whether an incident is fabricated or recalled, we must take them all as contrived in the interest of the point Ms. Redgrave seeks to make.
That point is a bittersweet one. In 2003, when Ms. Redgrave attended the funeral of her mother, the sight of family grave markers with their names eroded away sparked these musings on what mark a life leaves on the world. While her family has left many an indelible print, it still has its share of unknowns. Mildred’s life is one — a youth spent without the suitors her sisters acquired, a marriage as cold and clumsy as if arranged (but without the excuse of arrangement behind it), and children she seemed to distance herself from. It was a life of depression and missed opportunities and yet it fed the emotional and genetic pools downstream as fully as the famous. These chains of influence, Redgrave subtly asserts, impact us – for better or worse – more than we can know. But what is the impact? What made Mildred so overcome by the negative side? Where does this unnamed clinical depression come from? She does not explain it, but gracefully reminds us that all ancestors live on in us, even those whose bequest is emptiness.