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Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh tells the story of the great film actor Vivien Leigh.
Rick Foster conceived and developed the one-woman play Vivien with Janis Stevens for a production at Sierra Repertory Theatre in May, 1997.
Vivien Leigh was a great film actor. She and Laurence Olivier had one of the most romantic celebrity marriages of their time. And one of the most troubled. She suffered unspeakably from manic depressive illness (which is now called bipolar disorder).
Opinions differ as to her greatness on stage. What is certain is that she felt the stage a higher artistic calling, that she felt herself inferior to Olivier as a stage actor, and that she struggled continually under this comparison which was amplified by certain cruel critics. She also suffered from tuberculosis, which claimed her life at the age of 53.
At the time of her death Vivien Leigh was attempting to prepare to play the role of Agnes in the London premiere of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. She told friends that she could not understand the character. The play is set in a dream that Leigh has at the end of her life. She enters a theater thinking that she is coming to the first read-through of A Delicate Balance. But the theater is dark and abandoned, and perhaps haunted. The dream leads her back through the events of her life that brought her to this lost place and toward a confrontation with the central issues of her life.
Vivien premiered at the Sierra Repertory Theatre in May, 1997 with Janis Stevens in the role. It was directed by Barbara Bosch. It was produced at Pacific Repertory Theatre in Carmel, California in July 1998 with MaryAnn Shoup Rousseau as Vivien Leigh under the direction of Lamont Johnson.
The original core production team of Foster, Stevens, Bosch, and designer Ron Madonia continued to develop Vivienthrough productions at the Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City (1999), The Bradford Studios in Sonora (2000), California Stage in Sacramento (2000), Mendocino Theatre Company in Mendocino (2001), and The Birdcage Theatre in Oroville (2001). The development culminated in a production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco (September – October, 2001).
Suitable for adults.
- Requires a theater with light and sound system.
- Theater must provide light operator, sound operator, and all box office and house management.
Reviews and Comments
FROM A LETTER BY TARQUIN OLIVIER, VIVIEN LEIGH’S STEPSON
This is simply terrific. What an extraordinary piece of writing. Rick Foster’s range of understanding and recreating Vivien amazed and moved me with every page; all so marvelously in character.
RICHARD DODDS, Bay Area Reporter, 9/12/01
Vivid ‘Vivien’ at the Magic
Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh, to give it its full title, creates a surprisingly complex portrait of the talented but troubled actress, often finding commentary in her plights from the roles she famously played. Credit for the success of this enterprise deserves to be shared by playwright Rick Foster, actress Janis Stevens, and director Barbara Bosch.
Foster has set his play in 1967, in the moments before Leigh’s death from the complications of tuberculosis. In a fevered dream, she imagines she is at the London theater where she is to begin rehearsals for Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. She can’t get a handle on her role, a character who claims to welcome madness, finding this to be a notion that could only be held by someone who had never crossed over to the dark side.
As her reveries unfold, imagining she is being visited by Noel Coward and John Gielgud, she recalls key moments of her life and career. Laurence Olivier is very often at the center of them, as professional jealousies take as much of a toll as their mutual infidelities on their marriage.
Rather than simply have Vivien recite excerpts from her various roles, Foster has her take her various characters’ words and turn them into weapons with which to battle life’s indignities. These moments find a dual emotional context for these roles, and also offer the chance to provide some backstage gossip.
Director Barbara Bosch’s production is filled with imaginative touches that use the casual scenery and props of a rehearsal stage to create evocations of costumes and even of mental disorder.
In her 85 minutes on the stage, Stevens manages at least as many emotional epiphanies, as she takes us through guises that range from coquette to happy homemaker to manic-depressive. She weaves in and out of her stage and screen roles, including, of course, Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, but also Ophelia, Juliet, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, and Antigone.
This is a fascinating portrait that rings with veracity, a quality often missing from celebrity-based monodramas. Vivien is a sad story told with exhilaration.
BRAD ROSENSTEIN, Bay Guardian, 9/12/01
The clunky title Vivien: The Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh isn’t promising, but Rick Foster’s solo play, starring Janis Stevens, turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
The structure is standard monodrama fare: manic, tubercular Leigh at the end of her life in an empty theater, recounting her ups and downs. But Foster’s writing is artful and perceptive, dodging many of the clichés of the form and eloquently dramatizing Leigh’s passion, intelligence, and acuity, as well as the destructive tragedy of her mental illness. Foster is particularly strong when charting the glittery but corrosive love between Leigh and Laurence Olivier and the role that relationship played in her eventual loss of balance.
But the evening belongs to the masterful Stevens. She has Leigh’s arched eyebrow and kittenish smile down cold, but thankfully she aims for evocation rather than imitation and quickly compels our interest far beyond the level of tabloid biography. Director Barbara Bosch keeps things simple and focused, and Stevens and Foster capture a talent whose brief flight hit some thrilling highs and sobering lows.
PATRICIA BEACH SMITH, The Sacramento Bee, 5/13/00
Film Legend Comes to Life on the Stage
Say you have just arrived on the planet from the fourth rock from the sun, you are under the age of 40 or you have seen neither “Gone With the Wind” nor “A Streetcar Named Desire” on the movie screen. No problem.
Janis Stevens so vividly plays a woman named “Vivien” at California Stage (through May 28) that one needn’t necessarily know she is portraying a famous two-time Oscar-winning actress named Vivien Leigh to appreciate the drama, sadness and complexity of this character.
Knowing to whom Vivien refers when she speaks of Larry Boy (Sir Lawrence Olivier, her husband), Finchy (one-time lover, actor Peter Finch) or Winston (Sir Winston Churchill) might let one pretend to be in on all the little secrets. But aside from expanding one’s appreciation of the play at the soap opera level, it isn’t all that important.
Stevens deftly wends her way through a minefield of depression, mania, love, hate, frustration and fury with amazing alacrity and compound talent. One minute she is extolling the virtues of the theater — “In the theater, chaos has the most exquisite structure” — the next, contempt for the hands that feed her in Hollywood — “Hollywood starts to infect my brain …” or “The only true acting is on the stage.”
The strength of the language in native Sacramentan Rick Foster’s poetic one-person play brilliantly propels the character from one facet of her life to another. Stevens returns the favor by delivering Foster’s language with astute timing and eloquence.
As she mimes the action, she talks about her “Ship of Fools” character, Mrs. Treadwell, making up her face. It is one of the best examples of the cooperative effort that makes this writer-actor team a success. Likewise a scene where she describes the action when playwright Edward Albee (“he was wearing tennis shoes”) visits her London flat:
“I drifted down the stairs, and nobody drifts down the stairs like me!”
Also powerful are the playwright’s gifts of silence. The pregnant pauses Foster built into the play allow Vivien’s breathing and jagged cough, plus the chilling buzz she makes to imitate the sound of her electric shock treatments, to affect the audience, especially in the intimate California Stage theater. Together, Foster and Stevens have created a marvelous work that spans the swath of pain and pleasure that so often is the fate of legendary characters.
On a minimally dressed, yet cleverly conceived set by Ron Madonia, Vivien moves adroitly from an imaginary stage to her dressing room, a mental hospital and the Oliviers’ country house.
“I just love my dressing room,” Vivien says. “When I go out, I have to play Vivien Leigh. In here, I can be anyone — even myself.”
Over a basic black silk sheath, Stevens constantly changes costumes (imaginatively devised by Mary Campbell-Dohring), picking up a single red satin glove to signify “Madame Mania” or a black silk scarf to symbolize “The Duchess of Darkness” (depression) “… two little visitors who drop in on me.”
When Stevens enters to begin the nonstop play, she’s wearing a lustrous mink coat — what else becomes a legend? She slings on a red velvet gown and becomes Scarlett O’Hara, ties a large square of lavender silk on one shoulder and becomes Antigone, dons the drapery on one side of the set to become Juliet and sinks in desperation dressed only in her dour black dress.
Barbara Bosch directed the original production by Sierra Repertory Theatre in 1997 when Foster was playwright-in-residence there. Direction for this joint effort by Duende Productions and California Stage was reworked by Thomas F. Maguire, Foster and Stevens.
The play opens and closes dramatically in the unforgiving glare of the solemn “ghost” or work light, a traditional single bulb in a lamp always left on in theaters so they are never dark. It is just one aspect of a beautifully lit production, also by Madonia, that helps define the various venues.
Stevens plays to the light, turning just so to exhibit her stunning profile, one amazingly similar to the real Vivien’s.
LEO STUTZIN, The Modesto Bee, 5/02/00
Janis Stevens as ‘Vivien’: Strong Acting, Smoother Drama
You can see Janis Stevens transform herself into the beautiful, bedeviled Vivien Leigh in Sonora this weekend, or you can see her riveting magic in Sacramento in the three weeks that follow. If you’re susceptible to the allure and power of theater, don’t miss her.
The play, Rick Foster’s “Vivien,” is essentially identical to the version that premiered at Sierra Repertory Theatre three years ago. The only significant change is the elimination of an intermission, allowing the story to unfold in a seamless 90 minutes.
The shift adds immensely to the strain of performing a difficult role; it also vastly heightens the impact of Foster’s text and Stevens’ acting.
I wish I could explain — or even understand — the difference in the performance.
Three years ago Stevens seemed to be reprising a role she had done too many times before, exploiting her looks, sensuality and considerable dramatic skills without entering into the uniqueness of the woman she was portraying.
Last Saturday night she was Vivien Leigh, in all the soaring exuberance and agonized depression that marked the actress’s later years.
Maybe my response was conditioned by the venue, a converted art gallery. In place of a stage jammed with clutter that suggested phases of Leigh’s personal and professional life, the site offered little more than bare walls, a pale wood floor and track lights that usually illuminated the entire room.
Designer Ron Madonia provided Stevens with a chaise longue, a small red carpet, three large blocks assembled to serve as a pedestal and a seat, and muslin drapes that the actress could enter or pull aside for effect.
Costumer Mary Campbell-Dohring provided two robes and a pair of long red gloves that lie strewn on the floor before the play starts, and a mink coat Stevens wears on entry, then quickly sheds. For much of the drama, Stevens is shoeless and clad only in a black slip.
Everything else was up to Stevens and totally visible.
Her performance space is ringed by some 50 seats, creating intimacy and peril. What succeeds is obvious to her in viewers’ eyes; so is the response to any misstep; and so is boredom.
Saturday’s audience was mesmerized.
Set in 1967, the year Leigh died of tuberculosis at the age of 53, Foster’s story zigzags via the paths of memory across a lifetime. It touches lightly on her first marriage, at 19, and motherhood a year later.
It focuses on the events that make Leigh memorable — two great films and her 20-year marriage to one of the century’s great actors, Laurence Olivier — and on a manic-depressive personality that was as oversized as anything a Hollywood screen writer might invent.
Millions remember Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone With the Wind” and Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” roles that brought Oscars.
The play covers territory that isn’t nearly so well known: the ecstasies and jealous rages she shared with Olivier; her tireless vivacity as the hostess of posh parties; the struggles after she turned 40, years filled with fading-beauty roles she resented and with manic-depressive attacks that often led to hospitalization and electro-shock therapy.
Her voice modulating between whisper and tremulous roar, her movements between confident ease, forced grace and confused wanderings, Stevens brings it all to life. If she has ever done better, I don’t recall it.
Because of building code issues, the show regrettably will be the last in the lovely second-story site for Foster and partner Tom Maguire’s production company.
The Sonora Area Foundation has commissioned them to create a play about Mark Twain and Bret Harte, for staging in schools and in public later this year, but its site is uncertain.
JEFF HUDSON, Capital Public Radio, 5/01/00
Rick Foster, the playwright from Sonora, has penned a one-woman show about the tempestuous life of the actress Vivien Leigh. The obvious theatrical parallel is to Christopher Plummer’s star turn in “Barrymore,” which visited Sacramento a year or two back. Both shows deal with aging, dissipated stars with a penchant for bad behavior and drink, reminiscing in rehearsals at the tail end of their checkered careers, thinking back with fondness on the high points, and with a touch of regret that they hadn’t done a bit more Shakespeare for the sake of posterity.
But the comparisons between the two shows end there. “Barrymore,” in its Sacramento run, suffered from its placement in the cavernous Community Center Theater, which was way to big for the kind of intimacy that this sort of show requires. Foster’s new play “Vivien,” on the other hand, is playing tiny studio theaters in Sonora and Sacramento as the show is warmed up for runs in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And I daresay that Foster has written a better play. As a script, “Barrymore” had charm, but never really went anyplace, but Foster’s “Vivien” is a complex and absorbing character study that traces his character’s rise to stardom, her long, rocky, and sometime competitive marriage with Laurence Olivier, her tremendous craving for respectability in classical roles to match her popularity as a Hollywood star, and her gradual decline into alcoholism, madness and tuberculosis in middle age.
The play is both a tremendous challenge and marvelous opportunity for actress Janis Stevens, a seasoned professional who’s been seen at the B Street Theatre and various Shakespeare festivals around the country. Listen to her purr as Vivien welcomes Winston Churchill to her dressing room. As Vivien, actress Stevens gets to inhabit trademark roles like Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois, as well as Shakespeare’s Juliet, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, and Stevens does each very well. The scene in which she does Lady Macbeth while simultaneously portraying Vivien castigating Olivier for not living up to his promise to make a film of Macbeth and cast her as the murderous Scotsman’s dark, ambitious queen is both a beautifully layered piece of writing and a sensational piece of acting. And this is only one of many such episodes as Vivien goes from a glamorous marriage and the height of stardom to a solitary room in the mental hospital.
It’s an intense performance by Stevens, and one I won’t soon forget, nearly ninety minutes alone on stage. And I think Foster’s hit on a topic that has the potential for attracting a large audience. “Vivien” will play one more weekend in the art gallery upstairs in a Gold Rush era building called The Vault in downtown Sonora. Then the show will move on May 12 to California Stage, at the corner of 25th and R in Sacramento, where it will run on weekends through the end of the month. Catch it while you can… this is a show that is likely to go on to better-known venues in bigger cities over the months to come. For Capital Public Radio, this is Jeff Hudson.
GARY LINEHAN, Sonora Union Democrat, 5/16/97
Taking one of the theater world’s most beautiful, complicated personalities and trying to convey her life in a two-hour, one-person show is a task not meant for amateurs, but at Sierra Repertory Theatre, actress Janis Stevens and playwright Rick Foster pull it off magnificently in Vivien, a dramatic portrait of actress Vivien Leigh.
The term “tour de force” is an understatement here, with Stevens bringing an incredible range of Leigh’s personal and professional battles and triumphs to life.
Over the two hours dozens of characters come to life, from actual people in her life to roles she has played. Her “visitors” – from Winston Churchill to writers, producers and myriad stars of stage and screen – take shape through one-sided conversations or sheer force of memory.
Some of the heroines she recreates are well known, such as Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois and Lady Macbeth, while others are more obscure, though all are mesmerizing.
Stevens spins flawlessly though dialects, costumes and temperaments to create a vivid, engrossing Leigh. Even the people not seen have remarkable depth.
There are masterful touches throughout. In one early scene, Leigh moves figuratively from childhood to death in one sentence. Later, puppets are used to define the swings of manic depression, the illness that drove Leigh both to greatness and despair. Frankly, Vivien is damn good.
SHERMAN SPENCER , The Stockton Record, 5/11/97
Two virtuoso performances are on view in Sierra Repertory Theatre’s production of Vivien. The achievements of Rick Foster, who wrote the one-woman show, and Janis Stevens, who performs it, combine to offer a theatrical experience not to be forgotten soon.
Playwright Foster has taken the strands of Vivien’s domestic life and stage triumphs and woven them into a remarkable coherent exposition of her great theatrical gift and personal tragedy.
Stevens portrays Vivien in a passionate and absolutely flawless performance. She captures not only the aspect of Leigh’s great facial beauty, but also many of her expressions, mannerisms and vocal qualities. She switches seamlessly and convincingly from a menacing Lady Macbeth to a love-struck adolescent Juliet without pause or loss of dramatic tension.
Though Stevens has herself starred in some of the roles we glimpse, she plays them here as the aging Vivien. Now, trapped in remorse and painfully derived experience, she comments, “Trouble with Shakespeare’s heroines is that by the time we really understand them, we’re too old to perform them.”
Few roles require such relentless high-tension effort from the performer. Yet given Leigh’s situation, her actions seem both psychologically and dramatically credible.
Availability and Pricing
Please contact Duende regarding production or performance rights for this play.