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Open: 03/16/12- Close: 03/19/12 Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference
Reviewed for By: Ellen Joffred
Lisa Raymond ©2019  Jen Danby as Vivien Leigh

I love Vivien Leigh. Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar named Desire; Vivien was a breath-taking actress.  But it’s always been her own life story that fascinates me most: her manic episodes and her inability later in life to decipher reality.  Thus, I was thrilled to see Mississippi Mud Productions Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference written by Marcy Lafferty.            

Directed by Austin Pendleton, the ninety-minute one-woman show is performed by the eloquent Jen Danby as Vivien Leigh. Danby gracefully navigates Lafferty’s meandering script, which focuses on Vivien’s public, private, and love life.  The script also delves into Vivien’s career, aging, and madness.  In some ways, the play is a tell all: an evening when Vivien shares candid secrets.

As the title suggests, the piece is at first framed as a press conference.  The play begins with Vivien talking to Frank, a reporter.  She even acts as if an imaginary Frank is there.  He asks her one question and the stories begin to roll.  Suddenly we are all Franks, and the press conference mutates into an intimate and informal conversation and confession.

Danby captivates and charms as Vivien; she displays a poised effervescence.  Her regal, rich voice is clear and confident.  She easily oscillates between flirting, ladylike laughter, and startling crude language. Her grace lures the audience in, which makes her subtle shift into madness all the more disturbing.  This last bit of the performance, which focuses on Vivien’s madness, feels like a stone slowly and softly sinking in your stomach.

Moreover, Danby acts as other characters at times, carefully chameleon-ing and rarely slowing down.   Danby has a complete exchange with the audience.  She looks the audience in the eye, she asks the audience questions, and she sometimes sits down in the audience.  At one point, she even responded, “bless you” to an audience member who sneezed. These choices aided in creating different moments and colors in the performance, but I still didn’t understand what the rules of the script or the boundaries of the world of the play were.  The play grows increasingly theatrical, farther and farther away from a “press conference,” but what cracks the play open to this change wasn’t clear to me.  Perhaps the word “the last” allows for this to occur.  Since this is the last press conference, anything can happen?   

The unorthodox choice of space-the production is at the Alexander Technique Center for Performance and Development - aided in creating the initial feel of a press conference.  There was no lighting, no curtain, no sound. Audience members sat in folding chairs in this tiny room.  One wall had an unopened curtain displaying a mirror, which was somewhat distracting, and also never used.   There was also a screen partition that was never employed, as well as a pair of scissors that was only picked up once.  The scissors rested upon a piece of random wood, which seemed to have no function.   These elements felt unexamined, which is a shame when placed in comparison to Danby’s detailed emotional work.

Before the production began, I read in the program that the play debuted in 1997.  I initially wondered why do the play today?  Why do this production right now?  After seeing the production, I found the answer: Danby.  The piece showcases her excellent acting.  Even though I think certain production elements are unexamined and the script sprawls, Danby almost makes you forget those aspects as she shines.   Thus, I would highly recommend the show for anyone the slightest bit interested in Vivien Leigh.  

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