Thursday, July 18, 2013

Grace Kelly's glamorous, yet regret-filled life portrayed in "Longing for Grace"

Actress Grace Kiley took the stage Sunday and brought to life another actress whose name is similar to hers, Grace Kelly, in her thoroughly engrossing one-woman biographical play, Longing for Grace, an offering of 59E59 Theaters’ annual East to Edinburgh Festival.

Under the direction of Austin Pendleton, Kiley paints such a full and fascinating portrait of the late actress turned princess of Monaco that it’s hard to believe the show, written by Kiley, is only an hour in length. In her Kelly persona, Kiley addresses various family members and friends, transitioning fluidly from reminiscences of her youth through to her death at 52 in 1982, presenting a cautionary tale about a woman with a dream, which she pursued, excelled in, then gave up, only to spend the rest of her life in regret and loneliness.

“My life wasn’t my own anymore, for years, after the icon faded, my friends dispersed, my prince remote, my body changing, my face, my hands, all the things I struggled to make sense of, didn’t make sense . . . lost because I left behind what I loved,” she tells her youngest child, Stephanie. “I loved acting. The passion, something of my own.”

Finding that something of her own was important to the young girl in a family of athletic, trophy-winning children when she was not good at sports. She felt inferior. Later, when she had brought her acting teacher turned lover home for a visit to Philadelphia, he commented on the medals and awards filling the living room. “Everyone in your family has something displayed except you, Gracie, as if you don’t even exist.” She replied that it’s because she hadn’t accomplished anything.

But she felt called to pursue an acting career, much to her father’s horror. She was a debutante from a proper family and he considered actors to be “streetwalkers.” She moved to New York anyway, studied acting and followed that dream into success on stage and screen, winning an Academy Award for “The Country Girl” in 1954.

She says all she wanted was recognition from her father, and she thought she had finally achieved it through her career. Her family was in the front row for her Broadway debut in Strindberg’s The Father, for which she received good reviews. Her father, though, squashed her joy by remarking to one of the critics, “I’ve always thought it would be Grace’s sister Peggy whose name would be in lights. Anything Gracie can do, Peggy can do better.”

But she had found her passion and pursued it so fiercely that director Alfred Hitchcock described her as a "volcano covered with snow."

Yet she gave it all up to marry Prince Ranier III, a man she met once while in the South of France for the Cannes Film Festival and with whom she corresponded for a year before he proposed during a visit to her family home. She had been fourth on a list of blonde actresses put together by the prince’s priest.

The marriage contract alone should have warned her she was not entering a happlily-ever-after princess life. It’s “volumes long and right out of ‘The Napoleonic Code,’” she tells her friends. In the event of a divorce, the prince would get sole custody of the children and she must leave the country. And the prince just happened to want a dowry of two million dollars.

“It seems that the palace is a little cash poor and needs some sprucing up before the wedding,“ she says, trying to make a joke of it.

Then the prince announced, much to Grace’s surprise, at a press conference that she would be giving up acting, and banned the showing of her films in Monaco. Still, she remained in denial.

“I’m sure it’s just for the papers until the wedding,” she tells friends. “He truly loves me, the movie star and as soon as we’re married Monaco will see what a devoted princess I am. And then” (pausing) “I’ll pick up my acting career. Just like that! I’ll never stop acting.”

From the start, her new life was hell. The servants ridiculed her because she was an American and they considered her an impostor. She knew no one in Monaco and was prevented from seeing most of her Hollywood friends and even from going out alone.

The birth of Caroline, “born exactly nine months and one day after our wedding,” brought her joy and a temporary closeness with the Prince, although her father’s comment was, ”Ah shucks, I wanted a boy.”

Even maternal happiness didn’t last., though, as she was not allowed to show affection for her second child, and only son, Albert (“Albie”), because Ranier feared it would soften him and make him unprepared to take over the throne as an adult. Her relationship with Stephanie was troubled; it was in an attempt to try to work things out with her that Kelly dismissed the chauffeur for the afternoon and went out for a drive alone with Stephanie. Kelly lost control of the car and crashed. Both were injured, but Grace sustained the greatest harm. She died the next day, Sept. 14, 1982, having never regained consciousness.

Kiley portrays Kelly’s anguish at how her life turned out so well I could feel that world stifling her. Although petite, unlike Kelly, Kiley possesses the same good looking regal blonde quality that Kelly was known for. (Actually, Kiley looks a great deal like another actress in this category, the late Lee Remick.) Katalin Varga’s costumes, Elle Murphy’s make-up and Giovanni Villari’s lighting complete the transformation.

Brian Tubbs has created an effective set consisting of a stately chair on a red runner that divides the stage into two playing areas -- a guest room with a red velvet chaise, small table with scripts, martini glass and a wooden letterbox on the floor. On the other side are a writing table and chair, telephone and appointment books and an ornate mirror. With this and her powerful script, Kiley creates the international life of a very famous woman.

After the show as I was waiting in the lobby for a friend who was joining me for dinner, the elevator opened and Kiley emerged carrying a large portion of this set, now collapsed and ready to be packed off to Edinburgh for 25 performances. From the glamor of the spotlight to striking the set, such is the life of a fringe festival performer.

I wished her well in Scotland. She opened up for me a life I knew little about, although I remember the day Grace Kelly died quite well. I was the government and politics reporter for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, MD, and Sept. 14, 1982 happened to be a primary election day. I was walking by the AP photo wire machine and was the first to discover the news and announced it to the newsroom. Our editor slammed down his long metal ruler and shouted, “Damn.” Mr. Sensitive was not reacting in sadness to Kelly’s death; he was angry because he had already configured the front page for the next day, something that in those days was done on paper with a pencil to map out the space and placing. He had planned on all election stories and now had to fit in coverage of a famous person’s death.

Later that day we learned a Middle Eastern president had died and, later still, that novelist John Gardner had also passed away, but Mike had decided with Kelly’s death that rather than readjust his layout he would just tease to the inside obit from the area above the banner. The president and writer didn’t even get that courtesy, just small obits inside.  The moral of the story back then was that if you wanted good press coverage, don’t die on a busy news day.  Now, with news a 24-hour venture, one can get plenty of attention.

The East to Edinburgh Festival continues through Sunday, July 28 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets to each show range from $10 - $20 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.59e59.org. Check the web site for the offerings. Unfortunately Longing for Grace played the final of its three performances on Sunday.

I look forward to these shows each summer as 59E59 hosts United States productions en route to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world. Created as a way to help shows get on their feet before flying off to Scotland, East to Edinburgh simulates the same production constraints that all shows experience at the Festival During this whirlwind three weeks, 16 productions will have been featured, reflecting some of the most adventurous theater from New York and across the country.

2 comments:

Jere Van Dyk said...

I, too, saw this show, and knowing little about Grace Kelly, was drawn immediately by Ms. Kiley into her world. Her story is one that every artist must deal with; everyone in the world, in fact, who knows deep inside who they are and what they must be in life. Grace Kiley, I thought, is a terrific actress.

Jere Van Dyk said...

I saw this performance, not knowing much at all about Grace Kelly, except that she was a famous actress who lived a supposedly fairy-tale life, and was immediately drawn in to the truth underneath, so wonderfully presented by Grace Kiley, whose acting I was not familiar with. The story of Kelly is one that every artist in the world who has a dream, and who knows the temptations all around, should see. Grace Kiley looked like Grace Kelly, in all her regal, and downhome manner, and told a story that made me think about my own life. That is what art can do for us. It certainly did it for me