"Go and catch a falling star/ Get with child a mandrake root/Tell me where all past years are/Or who cleft the devil's foot." John Donne's poem about the impossibility of finding a "true and fair" woman struck something in actress Lynn Redgrave. From her youngest days in her famous British acting family, she knew Juliet's fear of hearing the mandrake's screams if she awoke before Romeo arrived at the tomb. Combining the images of the mythological plant with the desire to tell a story about her mother (as she did with Broadway's Shakespeare for My Father), the star of "Gods and Monsters," "Shine" and London's recent hit revival of Noises Off crafted The Mandrake Root as a conflict between Rose, an aged, regret-filled mother, and Sally, the daughter who wants to understand her. After a so-so critical, but audience-pleasing response in its extended world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, The Mandrake Root plays in a revised run at San Jose Repertory Theatre through Feb. 24. Redgrave hopes to follow a successful California run with another one - this time Off-Broadway.
Playbill Online: What has happened to The Mandrake Root since its debut in January, 2001?
Lynn Redgrave: I think finally I am telling the story I wanted to tell. But I had to kill a character, which was hard. I had to kill the granddaughter Kate [played by Angela Goethels at the Long Wharf], whom I loved. But Sally must clearly tell the story; this is her journey. Before, it was not clear as Kate got to have all the good conflict scenes. The second biggest change is in Sally. In the original, Sally was a novelist. Then I asked myself, "Would it affect the plot if I took away every reference to her writing? Would it matter?" When it didn't, I thought, "How do you express artistic work?" So now Sally is a children's book writer whose books stem from the stories her mother told her. As her mother invades her life, she discovers the subtext in them.
PBOL: You've said many times that The Mandrake Root is your mother's play. Is she Rose?
LR: She is definitely the inspiration, the leaping off point. But if people try to look too deeply...Is Sally, Lynn? Well, no! This play is my love letter to my mother for a hard life survived with grace. And I hope the story I've spun can be a source of contact for women, like her, who have been both a mother and a woman.
PBOL: How does the myth and meaning of the mandrake tie in with the play?
LR: The mandrake root is one of the most potent plants. It can kill you, send you on a hallucinogenic trip from which you may never return and is sold powdered on all the witch websites. It was thought to aid in fertility and to arouse sexual desire. The root looks like a woman's body and has always been connected to women. The mother, Rose, lost a love and that caused estrangement with her daughter. Rose has literally been dragged from the ground, screaming and gone mad. She is the mandrake. Only when the spell is broken by her daughter, does she begin to heal.
PBOL: Writing is getting to be a habit with you. Are you becoming Lynn Redgrave, playwright? LR: Writing is an extraordinarily joyful, enlivening, enriching thing. I can do it anywhere and I don't have to depend on anyone. I love writing for the theatre - and I do indeed write every day, in either a journal or doing rewrites. It keeps me busy, keeps me happy and gives other people jobs. PBOL: Are you working on any more plays?
LR: While I'm in San Jose, we're going to do a staged reading of Nightingale, which I wrote for the English actress Caroline John [of "Dr. Who"]. It's a real tour-de-force for an actress of a certain age. A woman, who is Rose's mother, runs the gamut from 11 to death in a whole series of monologues.
PBOL: Despite your background, did you ever want to do anything else aside from work in the arts? LR: Until I was fifteen, I wanted to be an equestrian. I even had a job lined up and then I spent another summer at Stratford-Upon-Avon with my parents and I fell in love with acting.
— By Christine Ehren