Several hundred friends and admirers gathered in Cambridge, MA's Agassiz Theatre on Jan. 15 to honor the memory of the distinguished actress Frances West, who succumbed to a long battle with cancer on Nov. 5 at the age of 61.
As an award-winning actress and teacher, Ms. West was a vital force in Massachusetts theatre for four decades. Born in England, she graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), and moved to America when she was 20. She became a member of the Repertory Boston company that presented a four-play season at the Wilbur Theatre in 1959, and made her debut here as Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest.
She went on to give superlative performances in roles that ranged from classical (Volumnia in Coriolanus, Hermione in The Winter's Tale, Vittoria in The White Devil) to modern (Jane in Michael Frayn's Benefactors, Muriel in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, Sheila in Sir Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking). Most of her work was in the Boston area and, in recent years, with Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires.
The memorial celebration, which took place on what would have been Ms. West's 62nd birthday, began with remembrances by her daughter Katherine Cabral, who said that her mother had aspired to be an actress even as a little girl. She voiced her pride that West had received the Charlotte Cushman Prize as "outstanding Boston actress" at the 1992 annual Elliot Norton Awards. She added that her mother loved flowers and was an ardent gardener. Maria Tecce, a friend of West's, accompanying herself on the guitar, sang a piece titled "The Garden."
Noted speech teacher Kristin Linklater offered a tribute via videotape. She recalled being a colleague of Ms. West's at LAMDA when they were teenagers and reuniting in various projects here during the past decade. She saluted West's work at Emerson College and with the Company of Women, saying that West "taught voice beautifully." Tina Packer, the head of Shakespeare & Company, is currently in Stratford-on-Avon but sent some recollections, which were read by Ms. West's sister, Margery McKevitt. Packer, born in England, recounted shared experiences there with West as well as citing her own small role in the 1998 production in the Berkshires of the Pulitzer-winning Wit, in which West starred to great acclaim. "Her energy still holds us," Packer stated.
Actress Paula Langton, another friend, read a lengthy self-appraisal that Ms. West had jotted in her diary last April: "I'm a thoughtful person...I mediate well...I can be funny; I cry easily...I love music; I love silence...I feel I never do enough for others...I strive to be perfect." Kerry Kaplan, Ms. West's partner of 18 years, followed with his own remarks -- both serious and humorous -- about "a remarkably elegant person."
Appropriately, Ms. West had the final words, thanks to a superb videotape montage assembled by director Daniella Varon. We once again saw and heard the wonderful way Ms. West worked with words -- in Cleopatra's paean to Antony ("His legs bestrid the ocean"), Mistress Quickley's account of Falstaff's death, excerpts from West's one-woman Edith Wharton show, and other bits. More than one person left with not only the sound of Ms. West's voice but also the thought that she had demonstrated enormous dedication and courage by postponing her third round of chemotherapy for cancer in order to play the central role of a woman undergoing cancer treatment in Wit.
-- By Caldwell Titcomb (Boston, MA)
Special to Playbill On-Line