and not just as a "one-woman show." A beautifully constructed union of intellect and emotion, this singular production breaks that moldy monologue mold as Zoe Caldwell vividly animates playwright/memoirist Lillian Hellman, a generous spirit with an ego to match.
Directed by her husband Robert Whitehead, Caldwell also revitalizes a stageful of figures from Hellman's fascinating life -- Dorothy Parker, Tallulah Bankhead, her eccentric parents and beloved black nurse Sophronia. And, of course, her great friend, love and critic, "Thin Man" author Dashiell Hammett.
We find Hellman waiting agitatedly in a hospital room adjoining Hammett's sickbed, stalking and smoking and striking grand poses as she rhapsodizes expansively about how she got from what she was to what she became, and "the memories mount with the cigarettes."
Hellman speaks of her New Orleans childhood, which had "an intimation of sadness, an inkling that there was so much to understand that I might never find my way." Always possessed of a dramatic streak, Hellman was given to "rampaging angers"; she discovered jealousy as she sat in her favorite fig tree and spied her father kissing another woman. Hellman threw herself from the tree, creating her trademark broken nose, likened by Alexander Woollcott to the "prow head of a whaling ship."
There is some absorbing backstage stuff about the origin of "The Children's Hour," "The Little Foxes" and other plays from her 40-year career, but "Lillian" is primarily concerned with Hellman's essence. Even in a gripping condensation of Hellmann's brave appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is Hellman's roiling emotions and fear, to the point of illness, that are stressed, though her memorable words -- "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions" -- are well- served.
Hellman's life and work were inextricably bound with Hammett's; thus after reliving each flight, of fancy and otherwise, Caldwell returns to earth with a sigh, "Oh, Dash."
Elegant in a tailored gray suit, Caldwell's Hellman is gutsy and feminine, abrasive and likable. Her consummate performance is enhanced by Ben Edwards' striking shattered- shadowbox set. And Thomas Skelton's lighting design variously creates deep black depths, stipples Caldwell in shadows and warm gold in memories, and goes cold white when Hellman leaves her reveries to confront the imminent loss of Hammett. David Gooding's sound design wafts delicate music through key memories, and recalls voices from the House testimony to good effect.
"Lillian" was written by William Luce, who wrote "The Belle of Amherst" about Emily Dickinson, and he must be considered the master of this form. In her trilogy of memoirs -- "An Unfinished Woman," "Scoundrel Time" and "Pentimento" -- Hellman certainly left him a rich vein to mine. And if she casts herself in a somewhat saintly purplish light, who can blame her? "Lillian" is a fleet visit, a self-celebration to savor.
LILLIAN -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through December 14.