PITTSFIELD — Playwright-screenwriter-memoirist Lillian Hellman reportedly could be tough, witty, outspoken; heroic to some, self-serving and disingenuous to others.
"(Lillian Hellman) seems to mean so many things to so many different people," said actress Diedre Bollinger, who is playing Hellman in William Luce's one-actress play, "Lillian," which begins a two-weekend run 7 p.m. Friday at the Whitney Center for Arts on Wendell Avenue.
Threading her way through those contradictions, fusing them into a whole, has been Bollinger's main task in crafting Hellman from Luce's writing and Carl Ritchie's direction.
"Amid those contradictions, all opinions seem extremely strongly held," Bollinger said by e-mail, "so there is some freedom in that. If there is no 'one' answer to who she is, she could, to an extent, possibly be seen as all of them.
"She describes herself as 'strange and difficult' in the play, and it seems apt to me, so that was a unifying concept ... but finding her voice, at least my best effort at sounding like her, was crucial ... "
Hellman was born June 20, 1905 in New Orleans, daughter of a shoe salesman. She moved to New York with her family when she was 5. She attended New York schools and Columbia University and New York University. In 1925 she married playwright Arthur Kober, with whom she moved to Hollywood in 1930. She divorced Kober in 1932, two years after meeting detective novelist Dashiell Hammett ("The Thin Man," "The Maltese Falcon") and beginning an intimate relationship that continued until his death in 1961.
Hellman spent much of the 1930s as a book reviewer, press agent, play reader and, eventually, screenwriter whose credits include "Dark Angel" (1935), "Dead End" (1937) and "The North Star" (1943).
Her first play, "The Children's Hour," about two teachers at a private school who are falsely accused of a lesbian relationship, ran for 691 performances on Broadway. Among her subsequent Broadway successes were "The Little Foxes," "Watch on the Rhine," a translation of Jean Anouilh's "The Lark" and "Toys in the Attic." She also penned the original libretto for Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." In later life, she focused on memoirs and autobiography, notably "An Unfinished Woman" (1969), "Pentimento" (1973) and "Scoundrel Time" (1976).
In 1952, she was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Despite intense pressure, she refused to reveal the names of people she knew in theater and Hollywood who might have Communist leanings, if not outright associations. In a letter to HUAC chairman John Wood, Hellman famously wrote: "To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group."
Hellman died of cardiac arrest on June 30, 1984 at her home in Martha's Vineyard. She was 79.
"Lillian," which had a Broadway run in 1986 with Zoe Caldwell as Hellman, is set in a New York hospital in January 1961, where Hellman is maintaining a vigil outside the terminally ill Hammett's room. This death watch allows Hellman's mind to wander back and through her life, culminating with her clash with HUAC.
Ritchie, who is founder and artistic director of Taconic Stage Company in Copake Falls, N.Y., where "Lillian" originated last August, said he's always been intrigued by Hellman's work, "especially some of the indelible roles she wrote for women, as well as by her 'hard-living' life.
"There are still many people with strong opinions about her so the piece continues to feel relevant," he said by e-mail from his winter home in the Bahamas.
"I also felt that the fact that the play climaxes with her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee might well resonate in today's political climate."
Bollinger and Ritchie have a working relationship that reaches back to 2007 when they worked on a production of Tom Ziegler's "Grace and Glorie" at Ritchie's Copake Theatre Company. Since the founding of TSC roughly a year later, Bollinger has appeared in at least one TSC production in each of the last 10 years. "Lillian" is Bollinger's second one-woman play. Her first was last year's "The Last Flapper," another William Luce play, this one about Zelda Fitzgerald, the troubled wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, which originated in Copake Falls, N.Y. and then toured. It played The Whit last March.
"One-woman shows have been a major part of our season(s) all along," Ritchie said. "Every actress I've worked with is so unique that the relationship changes every time. With Diedre I can be extremely specific about what I think will work with the character and the piece and she can give me exactly what I'm looking for. ... when I'm directing Diedre it's not like a musician getting to play a very good violin, it's more like a chance to play a Stradivarius ... "
"Carl (is) incredibly adept at succinctly identifying the essence of a piece, without losing the forest for the trees, if you will," Bollinger said. "He has a terrific way of helping an actor relate to, explore, and express that core understanding ... He's also open to my asking questions, and to hearing my own connections to the text ... He makes a safe playground for the work."
The challenge, Bollinger said, "is always to make truthful meaning, or, more simply, to feel real ... which on my end means doing my best to be prepared, to make the most of rehearsal ... "
Bollinger said that since "Lillian's" first performances in Copake Falls, she's had personal experiences "that may add a different edge of understanding ... this go-round, but in live theater, ... every performance is another chance to 'get it right.' For every performance, my mantra is always to try my best to have good, clean shows and to have fun."