One-woman wonder

Carrying the entire weight of a full-length play must be a soul-shaking endeavor for any single pair of shoulders. But local actress Ellen Pfirrmann welcomes the challenge with rapt enthusiasm — albeit tempered by a healthy touch of anxiety.

“It’s pretty intimidating,” she admits before a recent rehearsal of Lillian, William Luce’s one-woman show based on the memoirs of acclaimed playwright Lillian Hellman, directed in Asheville by Lynnora Bierce-Wilson. “But it’s a personal challenge that I’m ready for.”

Pfirrmann, recently returned from a stint with a Vermont-based Shakespearean acting company, has acted locally for a decade and co-owns her own production company, Black Swans, with David Hopes. Still, the veteran actress was startled by some of the revelations she unearthed while researching the role of the formidable Hellman.

“I never really had this image of her before, but [Hellman] was quite conniving, grasping and manipulative,” she reveals.

Dubious personality traits to be sure, but they do make for fascinating drama.

Although the work was not produced until after Hellman’s death, Luce (also known for his one-woman play about Zelda Fitzgerald) wrote Lillian while his subject was still alive, basing his script on her written and oral memories and inviting her input as he went along. The entire “action” of the play — which takes place outside the hospital room of Hellman’s longtime lover, fellow writer Dashiell Hammett — focuses solely on the playwright’s reflections on her own stubbornly complicated life.

Painless Productions founder Sheldon Lawrence, who’s producing Lillian for his new company, Consider the Following, describes one admirable facet of that life: Hellman’s McCarthy-era mettle.

“[Congress] was [calling people who] had any kind of show-biz connection [to testify], and she had also been affiliated with anti-fascist groups in the ’30s and ’40s; this was a time when any kind of independent thinking had become a synonym for communism,” he notes. “Lillian was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she [did] something very courageous. … She sent them a letter saying she would be happy to testify about anything they asked her about herself, but if they insisted on asking her about other people, she would invoke the Fifth Amendment.”

But Hellman, who wrote such classic plays as The Children’s Hour — in which a scheming young girl ruins the lives of her two schoolmistresses — is perhaps better known as a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, who, while perhaps not as famous as her lip-curling counterpart, possessed much of the same brashness and martini-dry wit.

“Lillian was this strong, independent woman of the ’20s who made her own way,” says Pfirrmann, noting that Hellman’s relationship with Hammett (who wrote such detective classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) was an open one on both sides. The couple cohabited for only seven years out of their three-decade-long love affair, but their bond was insoluble, thickened with equal parts affection and cerebral vampirism.

“Several things I read [said that] Lillian sapped all of [Hammett’s] writing ability and intellectual strength,” Pfirrmann relates. “She fed off of him. … When they got together, he stopped writing, and then after he died she didn’t write anything.”

Though the compelling relationship between Hellman and Hammett is perhaps the crux of Lillian, it is by no means the whole basis of the play’s dramatic energy. The production draws its vigor from the different incarnations Hellman assumes as she reminisces about the people and places that have brought her to this particular point in her life.

“She talks about her entire life since childhood, adopting different personas and imitating different people,” explains Lawrence. “There’s a lot of humor, and some of the passages are absolutely beautiful.”

A one-person play, while obviously easier to direct and stage than an ensemble piece, poses the tricky hurdle of keeping the audience engrossed, the producer continues: “You don’t have the distraction of other actors — but, on the other hand, you don’t have the variety of other actors either, so how do you hold the audience’s attention?”

By employing a script like Luce’s, perhaps.

“There’s humor when there needs to be, romance when there needs to be, politics when there needs to be, [and enough] variety to keep the audience riveted,” promises Lawrence.

Pfirrmann praises the graceful economy of Luce’s language in capturing the essence of Hellman. “A lot is being said in the play with very few words,” she emphasizes.

In one scene, Hellman recalls, with simple eloquence, a fig tree that served as her childhood friend and protector: “The tree missed me when I was absent. You have to be a child to think a place misses you. … It was in the fig tree that I learned to read, and had what I called the ‘ill hour.’ I don’t know what I meant by ill. I certainly didn’t mean sick. I think I meant an intimation of sadness, a first recognition that there was so much to understand that I might never find my way.”

“[Luce] creates a rich, carefully chosen tapestry out of this woman’s life,” muses Pfirrmann, who relishes the chance to develop what she calls the “poetry” Luce has written. “This is not a very long play, but it’s very dense, because of the richness of the language.”

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