Saint Frances of Hollywood
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 15, 2005
What are we to make of a biographical drama in which most of the characters are actual, often very famous, people, but other pivotal ones are fictional or fictionalized? Sally Clark's play Saint Frances of Hollywood, now at Manhattan Theatre Source, purports to tell the story of Frances Farmer, an actress who became a star for a very brief moment in the 1930s before a series of difficulties landed her in a state hospital, where she was committed by her own mother and remained, in and out, for the better part of a decade. Clark spends about half of her play's running time on Frances's incarceration: she shows us Frances being tortured via hydrotherapy and shock treatments, prostituted by a nurse, and undergoing a frontal lobotomy. Clark also shows us, in the livelier first act, Frances interacting with gossip columnist Louella Parsons, actor Leif Erickson (who was her first husband), playwright Clifford Odets, and director Harold Clurman.
But Clark calls Frances's doctor Betelguese, an obviously made-up name (although she identifies his successor correctly as Dr. Freeman). She gives Frances's second husband, Alfred Lobley, the silly name of Alfred Knobble; she calls her friend Jean Ratcliffe, who finished Frances's posthumous memoir Will There Really Be a Morning?, only by her first name (and implies that Jean's intentions were less than friendly); she has a character named Roy Dicksell stand in for Ralph Edwards (even though she accurately calls his TV show This Is Your Life). What are we supposed to do with such a mishmash of fact and fiction? More to the point: what are we supposed to believe in Clark's play? The frontal lobotomy—a pivotal plot hinge here—is even disputed in MTS's program note.
Clark has written what looks on the surface to be a straightforward, chronological biography. But with so much of its veracity feeling dubious, I think it's better to view Saint Frances as a work of fiction, albeit one based in a true story. Clark's Frances is a smart but insecure woman. Her mother, Lillian, is tremulous yet domineering: a slightly fanatic, very unhappy woman who has decided to live vicariously through her beautiful and intelligent daughter, whom she calls "Little Sister." Sharon Fogarty plays Lillian as a cross between Mama Rose and Amanda Wingfield; she has a terrific scene in Act Two in which, wearing Frances's tiara and pretending to be Frances, answering a fan letter, she successfully navigates over the deep end and shows us how deeply disturbed this woman—the most important influence on Frances—actually is.
Lillian's husband, Ernest, is an ineffectual drunk. Frances can't wait to escape from this stifling home in Seattle, Washington, and when she wins a contest whose prize is a trip to Russia, she at last breaks free. Upon her return, through machinations never clearly explained by Clark, Frances meets members of the Group Theater in New York (whom she idolizes, especially playwright Clifford Odets), and then wins a chance for a Hollywood screen test. Though she disdains movies, she goes to California to please her mother, and—reciting Chekhov unexpectedly—she wins a contract and quick stardom. (This last part, Chekhov possibly excepted, is basically true: Farmer made her most successful picture, Come and Get It, in her first year at the the studio.)
Odets turns up unexpectedly and asks her to be play Lorna Moon in his play Golden Boy. She gets a temporary release from her contract, does the play, wins over hard-headed director Clurman, and becomes the toast of the Group. There's talk of her breaking her film contract altogether and taking the play on tour. She gives huge sums to left wing causes embraced by the Group, notably the Migrant Workers Fund. And she's fallen in love with Odets.
Then Odets's wife, Luise Rainer, arrives. The party is over. The downward spiral begins. Subsequent scenes track Frances's crackup. She starts drinking. She turns nasty and abusive. She socks a makeup girl in the nose. She goes to jail. She goes to the Western Washington State Hospital at Steilacoom. She is sent home. She mauls her mother, who commits her to Steilacoom once again. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
It's a harrowing, even compelling, story. And the marathon role of Frances—on stage for virtually every second of the 2-1/2 hour running time—is indubitably actress-bait. But what's Saint Frances about, finally? If it can't be taken seriously as fact—and it can't—what does it have to tell us about the world or the human condition? I think Clark wants the play to be an indictment of some Establishment: Frances's trip to Russia, an essay she wrote at 17 called "God Dies," and her social consciousness are all used as evidence of her "otherness" by people in power—her career is "destroyed" by Louella Parsons because she may be a "Red"; her term at Steilacoom is exacerbated because she incites the other inmates to think for themselves and attempt to rebel against the nurses and orderlies (in a scene right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
The play Clark has actually written suggests something different, though. Her Frances is essentially a weakling, controlled by her manipulative mother and an equally manipulative Odets, who manage to get her to do their bidding, her firm intelligence notwithstanding. Clark insists in the script that the actors playing Lillian and Odets also double as Jean and Dr. Freeman, and though both of these latter roles are practically cameos, the underlying idea is plain enough: Frances, if perhaps not a saint, is martyr to the strong-willed duplicities of these parent-figures who dominate her life.
Does it work? My companion, a young woman born after even the Jessica Lange movie Frances came out, found little relevance in this story, Frances Farmer's work being completely unknown to her and the deplorable conditions of mental hospitals circa 1940 having been mostly eradicated in the interim. As for me, I kept wondering what Clark was really going for. The first half feels like a B-Movie of Farmer's own time, filled with clichés and implausible occurrences, while the second half wavers between psychological horror film and broad parody (sample exchange: "DR. BETELGUESE: Are you a Communist? / FRANCES: Are you an asshole?"). Tone is a serious problem, ultimately, and director Daryl Boling never clarifies for us whether we're supposed to laugh or cry at what unfolds here.
Boling has overseen a mammoth production that mostly impresses, though. Set designer Maruti Evans has provided an oversized white platform on which Frances's life plays out, flanked by a pair of nifty white revolving doors (one of which doubles as a movie screen) through which the myriad people figuring in the story literally swing in and out. Stephen Arnold's lighting is effectively dramatic. Michael Bevins's costumes are terrific, and staggeringly numerous for an off-off-Broadway show.
Most of the cast members play many roles, and each has at least one moment to shine. Fiona Jones is memorable as Frances's annoying roommate at Steliacoom; Michael Shattner is pretty hilarious as her agent Ralph Schwab (who speaks in a Gilbert Gottfried shout most of the time); Dave Bachman is Barton Fink-ish as Clifford Odets; and Hank Davies is mostly sympathetic as Frances's hangdog dad. In the star role, Sarah Ireland works very hard, but I don't think she's quite found her Frances yet: the performance feels mannered and put-on, modeled on Kate Hepburn for Frances's lucid and assertive moments and Judy Garland for the drunk and crazy ones. Still, Ireland deserves kudos just for tackling this part.
So what's the bottom line? Big cheers to MTS and this crew for taking on such an enormous, complicated project, and also for introducing audiences to a Canadian playwright we're not familiar with. But some reservations about the script itself, and its intentions, and what it delivers—pro or con—vis-a-vis the memory of an increasingly obscure actress whose life was, if nothing else, unremittingly wasted and sad.