Sarah in AMERICA - At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through March 14.
You can't fault Lilli Palmer for not caturing, in "Sarah in America," some essential features of Sarah Bernhardt's farewell tours of the United States:
Bernhardt claimed to be ageless, and went on playing youthful roles throughout her career. Pamer never alters her appearance on her manner as she takes the character from her 30s to her 70s.
The tours were frankly packaged as celebrity appearances, rather than the kind of productions the great actress had been doing on European stages. Palmer shows her as a personality, rather than an artist, indiscriminately flamboyant offstage and on.
And in the final example of authenticity, the play recreates the spirit of Bernhardt's many positively-last-appearance tours by having Palmer bring each scene to what appears to be a conclusion -- and then reappear and do the same thing all over again.
Nevertheless, Palmer's Bernhardt is a toweringly attractive, if dramatically limited, creature. Audacious andgame, brimming with energy and enthusiasm, always ready with a new wild gesture, she is, as the play means to show, the perfect subject for the publicity she sought and received. Here was a predictable eccentric -- always amusing but easily delineated.
What's omitted, in Ruth Wolff's play, is any sense of Bernhardt in terms of the history of the theater. She outlived the theatrical style in which her triumphs occurred. The play has one line in which she dismisses the new theater by saying, "Ibsen?I don't understand that man. He wrote about ordinary people. I'm not ordinary -- I'm extraordinary." And then she goes on being successfully extraordinary, leaving one to assume that poor Mr. Ibsen, lacking her flair, was never heard of again.
The show is cleverly staged, with a collection of streamer trunks that revolve, open to reveal Pullman cars, and serve as furniture, and with one kind of smoke to represent Pittsburgh and another, from the ceiling, appearing as the mist from Niagara Falls. The writing is not as smooth. One-person shows have gotten skillful, over the past few years at letting the audience know what invisible characters have said, but this one makes its only speaker keep repeating "Are you asking me that --" or "Am I to understand that --" or "What do you mean by saying --" She then tells us what her interlocutor said, but at the expense of making herself seem hard of hearing or slow of understanding.