New play about screen legend Vivien Leigh may be the best of its kind.
by Donalevan Maines
At 82, playwright Jim Tommaney isn’t ready to reveal the secret of how an older gentleman attracts a young suitor.
But his new play, Viv! (The Story behind the Legend), sheds light on one of Hollywood’s most voracious cougars and her seductive ways. The late Vivien Leigh seems to appear out of nowhere—as she did to movie fans who first saw her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind—when sorcery summons her back from “the clouds” to 2012 and a diehard fan’s small apartment in New York City’s West Village.
The upstage area is covered with a shrine of 17-by-11-inch photographs of Vivien Leigh and her friends. What the images can’t share, the screen and stage legend describes in delicious detail in the November 30–December 15 production at Midtown Arts Center.
Of course, her character references the gay dalliances of Leigh’s most famous husband, Lord Laurence Olivier, and her equally dashing paramour, Peter Finch, among others.
“There was already a play about Vivien—Vivien Leigh: The Last Press Conference—but the first play is not always the best play,” says Tommaney. “There are five plays about the famous dancer Nijinsky, and it was the fifth that succeeded. And there are scores of plays about Marilyn Monroe, including five by Arthur Miller and three by Norman Mailer. Even I wrote one!
“The other play about Vivien was a monologue, a one-woman show. I find these to be static, without tension,” says Tommaney, who also directs the play’s world premiere. “We have a two-hander, with the second character being a devoted fan. In the course of the 75-minute play—no intermission—they develop a real relationship, with growing intimacy. And we have a twist at the very end, but that must remain a secret until you see it.”
While David O. Selznick toiled for years to cast the role of Scarlett O’Hara, following screen tests of practically every major actress in 1930s Hollywood, Tommaney chose Tyrrell Woolbert to play Vivien Leigh without so much as an audition. “She was my first and only choice,” says Tommaney. Woolbert was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, into a family of steel magnolias who idolized Leigh’s performance as Scarlett O’Hara in the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel.
“It’s almost a pseudo-religion with them,” she laughs. “Most of the women in my family revere her in Gone with the Wind. She’s like a Mary figure. I grew up knowing her in the role, and admiring her voracity, her energy, and her sprightliness.”
“I’ve been following Tyrrell since I saw her as Lady Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband,” explains Tommaney.
“That was in the spring of 2011,” ➝ adds Woolbert, “my final semester at the University of St. Thomas,” where she earned a master’s degree in liberal arts with an emphasis on English.
Tommaney says, “She was equally good as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet and as Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing.” Beatrice is to Woolbert what Scarlett O’Hara is to the previous generation of women in her family.
“Growing up, I loved the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson version of the play. For years, I’ve had almost the whole screenplay memorized,” explains Woolbert. “To transition from that role to this is very exciting. I’m still sort of riding that high, so I get to redirect that artistic momentum to such a beautifully written role. It’s a really intriguing combination of narration and confession and dialogue. For most of the script, Vivien is talking, and she is discovering things about herself while she is narrating her personal history.”
Tommaney says he did a lot of online research on Leigh’s life and career.
“Viv was very witty, and we used some of her quips when they fit in, and we checked to confirm dates,” he explains. “But the play is a work of the imagination. I obviously wasn’t present on Viv and Laurence Olivier’s wedding night, but I invented a most amusing scene. I feel whatever I invented is true to her nature. My respect for her is enormous.
“We cover the major men in her life—her first husband, Leigh Holman, her marriage to Lord Olivier for two decades, and the actor John Merivale for the last seven years of her life. And Peter Finch, whom she and Larry discovered doing Moliere on a shop floor in Australia, and brought back to London,” says the out playwright and director. “We touch on her relationships with her leading men: Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jean Pierre Aumont in Tovarich” (the musical for which Leigh won a best-actress Tony Award).
Tommaney scoffs at any suggestion that his play is a “biopic” of the two-time Oscar winner.
“Not on your life! It is a romantic comedy,” he laughs. “It covers the three major questions about Viv: her mental illness, her sexual appetite, and whether she was a great actress or just a great beauty. The image of the caduceus came to me, and I used that. One serpent is her being bi-polar, one serpent is her demanding sexual needs, and the staff itself is what supported her all her life—her craft and her talent.
“She’s the most remarkable woman I’ve ever encountered. Though l never met her, alas, I feel I know her intimately, and that we have become friends in the writing of the play. Olivier felt her epitaph should be ‘A lass unparalleled,’ but I feel it should be another Antony and Cleopatra quote: ‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.’ I love her, and she has brightened my life.”
Tommaney ponders what “drift” his life might take when the curtain falls on Viv.
“She had enormous youthful vitality, as Warren Beatty found out,” says Tommaney. As for me, I’d like to produce that fifth Nijinsky play. It’s tough to cast because the actor needs a dancer’s physique, though there is no dancing, and many actors seem to have only a nodding acquaintance with a gym. The actor must portray twelve characters, so it takes acting chops. I will do it as soon as I can cast it with a strong actor!”
Viv! (The Story behind the Legend) will be performed November 30 through December 15 at Midtown Arts Center in Houston. Call 832-894-1843 for ticket information.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Cathy Rigby in this issue of OutSmart.