All deaths are inherently dramatic, of course. But the parting of actors Ron Silver and Natasha Richardson provoked a particularly keen emotional response. Part of the reason is that both were relatively young — Silver was 62, Richardson was 45 — and still in possession of their creative powers. But, also, each performer was more than a mere figure on the stage whose talents we enjoyed from time to time. By choice and natural inclination, both led a larger life, one that stretched well beyond the pages devoted to their current role.
Silver, who won the 1988 Best Actor Tony Award for Speed-the-Plow, once called himself "more of a politician than I am an actor." He studied international affairs as a young man and, even as his success grew as a performer, never divorced himself from those interests. He engaged with the world every chance he could, and an interviewer was just as likely to get an earful of his views on foreign relations as they were on his latest stage role or movie. He traveled to more than 30 countries over his years and in 2000 co-founded the organization One Jerusalem to oppose the Oslo Peace Agreement. Its purpose was to maintain "a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel." As a stage actor, he took as political a role in the community as was possible — as president of the Actors' Equity Association for much of the 1990s. Many thespians like to play at the role of activist from time to time; Silver often seemed like an activist who sometimes dabbled (very ably) in acting.
His convictions were more important to him than advancement or currying favor. Why else would he so stridently adhere to his post-9/11 political transformation from liberal to conservative — to the point of speaking in favor of George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican convention — when he admitted that such activity was likely hurting his acting career. Even if you didn't agree with him, it was hard not to admire him, or at least want to know what was going on inside his fevered head. He was a rare actor who looked well beyond the sphere of his own existence.
Natasha Richardson's similar tendency to gaze past herself was in some way a function of her birth. As the daughter of director Tony Richardson and actress Vanessa Redgrave, she was an automatic member of the Redgrave clan, the most celebrated contemporary acting family on Earth, the Kennedys of the stage. Michael Redgrave, Rachel Kempson, Joely Richardson, Corin Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, Jemma Redgrave, Franco Nero — they were all family. And Natasha furthered the dynasty's reach and influence by marrying, first, producer Robert Fox, and then, actor Liam Neeson.
As a descendent of theatre history, she carried a lot of professional baggage around, but she seemed to tote it lightly. The crown of theatrical royalty sat comfortably, almost invisibly, on her head, and one unwittingly gravitated toward the weirdly golden beatitude that seemed to suffuse her person. Upon her sudden death — resulting from an epidural hematoma after a seemingly harmless fall on a beginner's ski slope in Canada — many people commented on her accessibility, her openness, kindness and luminous spirit. She appeared on Broadway only four times since her debut in Anna Christie in 1993, but seemed to play a much larger role in the community than that resume would indicate. She was frequently seen at theatrical events, often in connection to the Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced three of her four Broadway plays, including Cabaret, which won her a Tony Award. She signed on for events at the O'Neill Festival, the New York Public Library and elsewhere. She was on hand to announce the Tony nominations, and frequently appeared on the Tony Awards program. As recently as Feb. 9, she attended the memorial of late Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld with her husband and mother.
Her death was so stunningly unexpected and improbable that it left everyone from fellow actors to critics emotionally stung and grasping for words. When the theatre's leading family suffers such a staggering loss, the greater theatre family does, too.
The week was otherwise framed by the openings of two major revivals: Blithe Spirit and West Side Story. The former starred Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole, Rupert Everett, Simon Jones, Jayne Atkinson, Deborah Rush and Susan Louise O'Connor. The latter starred Leonard Bernstein's score, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and Jerome Robbins' original choreography — which is usually more than enough to sell this classic musical.
That proved to be the case this time around, too. Though critics were divided on whether bookwriter and director Arthur Laurents' creative tweaks to the property — most notably having the Sharks gang speak or sing some of their lines in Spanish — added or subtracted value, most concluded that it didn't really matter: West Side Story was West Side Story and it was great.
Many reviewers concluded the same thing about Noel Coward's play, though more than a few felt the classy production had not yet found its feet. But no one places a word of fault at the feet of trouper extraordinaire Lansbury, who, all agreed, was working theatrical magic up there as the sublimely ridiculous Madame Arcati. But then, she always does.