nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
April 26, 2005
Lilia Skala was an actress many came to know through her Academy Award nominated performance as a nun in Lillies of the Field, opposite Sidney Poitier. The play Lilia! brings her life to the stage in a solo work, written and performed by her granddaughter, Libby.
That life is nothing short of miraculous. At the top of the play, Lilia Skala appears first alone to the audience—speaking directly to them of her early life, a mother-to-be living in Austria; sharing her excitement as she is invited to perform as leading lady in a Shaw play called On the Rocks. She accepts the part, but the year in 1934 and the place is Munich, Germany. Skala, married to a Jew, soon finds herself, and her family, in a very precarious position.
And this is just the beginning of her story. Lilia Skala follows her husband’s escape, travels to New York, and though trained in Vienna as an architect, is forced to accept a job in a zipper factory. Two years later, through marvelous circumstance, she lands a huge part in a Broadway play, and so begins her prestigious career as an actress in America.
It is somewhere around this point in Lilia’s telling of the story of her life, that her granddaughter makes her first appearance onstage. Up to that point, actress Libby Skala has been playing her grandmother (as well as, briefly, many characters in her grandmother’s tale). But at this juncture she makes an appearance as herself, age four, in conversation with her Grandma. From that point on, the character Libby continues to share the stage with Lilia, aging throughout the course of the play. It becomes not only Lilia’s story, but Libby’s as well.
Lilia! is a huge undertaking, and Libby Skala takes on Lilia! entirely alone. The fact that only one woman has taken on all of the roles and responsibilities in the telling of this massive tale is daunting. It is also perilous. She appears completely unassisted by any amount of design. At the top of show, there is a sound cue of an actual taped interview of Lilia Skala around the time of her Academy Award nomination. It’s completely thrilling, and very effective, but it is also the last sound cue of the show. The story moves through so many times and places, from 1930s Austria to 1970s New York, and each new location requires the audience take more than a few moments to muddle through, paying extra attention to the text, with no clues given by sound or lighting design. The set is equally unattended to—nearly completely bare, with only matching two chairs; it gives very little sense of the play itself, and almost no information to the audience. Libby Skala is doing this play alone, and that is not always to her detriment, but it is not always to her benefit either.
As Libby continues to appear in and out of her grandmother’s life, the seeds are sown for a truly complicated relationship. The elder Skala, so often devoted to her granddaughter, is also fiercely critical of Libby’s life—everything from picking her nose as a child to contract negotiations as a young actress. Lilia can also be astoundingly solipsistic, at one point demanding that her granddaughter give up her favorite sweater “if you love me,” insisting it would look much better on her. In the end, the younger almost always defers to the elder. Their complex relationship is one fraught with dramatic potential, but the tensions are all too quickly diffused, dissipated, and forgotten.
True fans of Lilia Skala, who remember her from her plays, movies, and television appearances, will find much in this play to sink their teeth into. The biographical details are as fascinating as they are exhaustive. One could not ask for better, or more loving, research. And it is precisely this love that makes Libby Skala’s writing and performance a singular experience to those viewing this production, and what sets this play apart from other works. Skala does a pitch perfect impression of her grandmother’s voice, the taped interview at the top of show standing as testament to her exactitude. She also possesses a rare knowledge and intimacy of her grandmother that no one else can lay claim to. But, whether she is the best person to play the part she has written is unclear. It is virtuosic and demanding, ready-made for a grand dame of the stage, not unlike Lilia Skala herself, and at times Libby Skala does not seem up to the task. She is, unsurprisingly, much more consistently convincing in the role of herself.
In a life of miracles, of a woman known best for her roles as the workers of miracles, there is much to learn and be inspired by in Lilia! The story is told with a rare kind of reverence and care. It is ultimately Lilia Skala’s life that makes this play interesting, and Libby Skala’s interest in that life that makes it unique. It is however, in the end, a greater success as a biography than as a play.