Theater review

Lillian Hellman has her say, and then some, in 'Lillian' at The Whit

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PITTSFIELD — Playwright William Luce has fashioned a successful career writing one-person plays about notable figures in the arts — poet Emily Dickinson ("Belle of Amherst"), actor John Barrymore ("Barrymore"), Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald ("The Last Flapper"); Coco Chanel, Vaslav Nijinsky, Isak Dinesen, Enrico Caruso.

In "Lillian," which is being given an impressively smooth, skillfully acted production through Sunday at Whitney Center for the Arts, Luce turns his attention to American playwright Lillian Hellman, a second-tier American playwright who died in 1984 at age 79. Her best-known works are "The Little Foxes" (1939), "Toys in the Attic" (1960), "Watch on the Rhine" (1941), and her first Broadway play and hit, "The Children's Hour" (1934), in which two women teachers at a private school are falsely accused by a vindictive young girl of having a lesbian relationship. Hellman dedicated the play to womanizing, cigarette smoking, hard-drinking detective novelist Dashiell Hammett ("The Thin Man," "The Maltese Falcon," "Red Harvest," "The Dain Curse") with whom she had an on-again-off-again-on-again relationship from the time they met in Hollywood in 1930 — he was 36; she was 24 and married to a wannabe screenwriter — until his death of lung cancer in January 1961. While they lived with each other steadily for the five years prior to Hammett's death, that was not always the case. "We haven't always lived together, lived in the same house, lived in the same city," Hellman says. "Without words, we know we have survived for the best of all reasons. We take pleasure in each other."

Hammett was not only her lover, her emotional and intellectual partner, he also was her unlikely muse; badgering, cajoling, pushing her to write when she blocked, as she did with "The Children's Hour."

"I couldn't have written without him," she says simply.

"Lillian" is set in a waiting lounge outside the room in New York's Lenox Hill Hospital in which a comatose Hammett is dying. There is the sense in listening to Hellman's narrative that what we are hearing are the inner thoughts, memories, interrupted on occasion by the appearance of a nurse, whom we never see, to update Hellman on Hammett's condition. The rest is a soulful journey through the life of a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, politically outspoken artist who was born in New Orleans in 1905. She divided much of her childhood between her home city and New York — six months in one city, six months in the other — where she moved with her parents when she was 5 and where her father took a job as traveling shoe salesman. New Orleans provides the most evocative memories and images, especially that of a headstrong, willful, imaginative young girl who found meaningful refuge in the branches of a fig tree in the yard of the boarding house where she and her family lived.

Her wit is wry, understated, pointed, layered. "My mother was dead five years before I knew I loved her," she remarks about a woman who hovers just above the radar in Hellman's narrative. Her father emerges as a strong figure, as does a wet-nurse named Safronia, a tough-love woman with stern life lessons for Hellman, who became as much a handful as an adult as she was as a child. She held little back, not with Hammett nor in the expression of her political beliefs, especially in her contempt for and defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its investigation of so-called communist infiltration of Hollywood and government.

Hellman has very little to say about her plays. She takes us to her drunken appearance onstage for the opening night curtain call for "The Children's Hour." There is only one passing reference to "The Little Foxes," perhaps her best-known, most widely produced play; and a mention-plus of "Watch on the Rhine," a cautionary play set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., about fascism and the insidious ways in which it can gain a foothold in an open society. The inspiration for that play, Hellman notes, was Generalissimo Franco's Hitler-aided rise to power in the Spanish Civil War. But, in essence, "Lillian" is far more about the artist than the art; love; memory; the incidents that shape a life.

Drawing in large extent from Hellman's own writings, Luce handles a wealth of material with style, grace and understatement. "Lillian" is an artfully constructed piece. The transitions, the movements in time, are smooth, clean, insightful. The imagery is rich and evocative. Bollinger rises to the occasion. There is a keen sense of place and location, in both a literal and figurative sense, about Bollinger's delivery. Working with director Carl Ritchie, the actress inhabits Hellman and the people in her life with clarity, definition and palpable emotional texture. It's a performance that is as unassuming as it is bold and certain.

In a pre-opening interview in The Berkshire Eagle, Bollinger remarked that her main task in creating Hellman was to find her voice. She needn't worry. Amid all the voices on the Whitney Center stage, Hellman's sounds with lasting resonance.

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