By Tom Miller
On Saturday, September 14, I had the opportunity to witness the talents of soap opera star and Actor’s Studio member, Judith Chapman at the Santa Fe Fine Arts Hall. Chapman was there in part for the start of the Santa Fe College Master Arts Series (in which students and faculty can interact with various master artists of theatre, dance, performance, etc.) and coincidentally, this was also two months before what would have been the 100th birthday of actor Vivien Leigh on whose life the play is based. Vivien Leigh, a British stage and film actress won both her Oscars ironically playing U.S. Southern Belles [Gone With The Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire.] She had a torrid marriage to Sir Laurence Olivier, suffered from bi-polar disorder, and ultimately lost her life to tuberculosis. To portray Vivien in such varied states of affair, and to portray other characters in her life in a one woman production, an actor of great skill, subtlety, power, and mastery of theatre craft is required. Judith Chapman is that actor.
From the moment Judith Chapman took the stage, the audience was enraptured. In person, Chapman is a rather short woman who belies the devil of her age. She looks to be no more than forty, if that. On stage, she somehow looks even younger, and tall and striking. It goes to the power of theatre that when Mrs. Chapman [61 years old] walked into the reception following the performance, she was literally unrecognizable. We were all waiting for Vivien Leigh.
The stage was sparsely adorned with an ambiguous backdrop of hanging white gauze drapery. The few set pieces were an ornate chair, a desk (doubling as a luxury bedroom vanity), a two-person lounge sofa, and a center theatre ghost-light which served symbolically as a signpost for those ghosts-of-the-theatre past—one of whom was welcoming us to relive and re-experience her life. It was very much the job of Chapman herself to evoke the details of those scenes in the audience’s minds with the power of her body, voice, and uncanny portrayal. She did so with stylized movements of her expressive hands, controlled delineations of her swagger and poise; crescendos and dimuendos of her voice like the tones of a winding river. In this performance, one could see that Judith Chapman is in love with Vivien Leigh’s magmatic persona. This performance was a labor of that love. And how effortless was her portrayal! Not once was there a question of watching a performance—Chapman inhabits the character so thoroughly, we wonder if she is channeling Vivien Leigh through occult powers. Chapman was able to articulate so many levels, from the soft and sublime to the out-right episodes of frenetic disjointed powerful outbursts. I overheard during the reception one young gentleman who grew up with a bi-polar family member and he was almost in tears when he touched Chapman’s hand and expressed, “You didn’t make a ‘show’ out of the bi-polar disorder and depression, you nailed it. You really got it right. Thank you.” Directed by Thomas Rollapp, great use was made with the space of the stage and properties in the blocking. At times, it was like watching a dance, each movement propelled by authentic motivation. Never was there a feeling of an actor going through the motions. Chapman was alive in every moment of this performance.
Costumes were period-authentic and, according to one sharp-eyed aficionado of Vivien Leigh, right down to the knee-length black skirt. Too high on the length, he said, and it would be simply wrong. The devil is in the details. Lighting was suitably noir, atmospheric, fever dream-like, hazy. If lighting can be described as hazy, this was it. Perhaps the only flaw in an otherwise perfect production was in the sound-design.
This is a work better suited to intimacy. In a six-hundred-plus seats hall, some of the more nuanced passage and the low-toned stage whispers were lost on those seated toward the back. It was evident there was sound-reinforcement miking to the left and the right of the stage, presumably hidden in the set pieces—obvious because there was a noticeable rise in volumes when she moved to either side. The middle of the stage was an acoustic dead-zone. A body mike (Lavalier or similar mike) would have been a poor choice, for then her voice would sound exactly that; miked. We need the ambience of reinforcement miking. They might have positioned a directional mike just below the lip of the proscenium, center, to fill in that acoustic flatland. This is entirely a nit-pick and a technical matter, and not anything with which to fault the other perfect aspects of an astonishing and passionate production.