"Experience teaches you how to do things you never want to do again."
Actress Diedre Bollinger takes us on a voyage through the mind of America's best-known schizophrenic, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald. An inspiring woman who never once allowed herself to be distinguished by her celebrity husband, Zelda spent many of her later years in one institution or another devoted to persons with mental illness. Her quirky behavior inspired her husband's fiction. Her dilettantism inspired a generation of women in the post World War One years to follow suit and express themselves as individuals and not as men would typify their wives and girlfriends. It is likely that without Zelda the liberation that women experienced in the Roaring Twenties would have been considerably less liberating. Nevertheless, she paid the price for her erratic behavior. She died in 1948, at the tender age of 47, a widow, incarcerated in a mental hospital awaiting shock therapy for her rampant bi-polar behavior.
Bollinger doesn't look like Zelda and, from what little I know of the woman, doesn't sound like her either. The actress doesn't make an attempt at imitation and it isn't necessary as no one today knows what the woman sounded like, or looked like in her sad mental state. A native of Montogmery, Alabama and a friend of its other major female export - the actress Tallulah Bankhead - it is likely that the had a southern accent of great beauty and physical gestures that matched. Bollinger gives us nothing of the sort. Instead she plays the inner scope of the woman, tortured and torturing, conflicted and self-confronting as she explores her own life and even her simple existence in a world that could never appreciate her.
Playing the long and terribly intense script by playwright William Luce is an achievement. For nearly two hours we watch the actress that is Zelda, played by the actress that is Diedre, treat herself to the over-indulgence of reminiscence and regret. Zelda recreates scenes with her harsh and unloving father. She replays her romance with Scott. She offers up self-descriptives for her psychiatrist's use. She plays out the life that has brought her low, removed her from her husband and her child, her sisters and her friends, from her enemy/rival for her husband's love - Ernest Hemmingway.
The term "tour-de-force" is often applied to these one-person plays. Here we have a double trip as Bollinger plays the depths of Zelda's despair while her version of Zelda is playing out the highlights of her life for an unaware doctor who hasn't even come in to work to keep his appointment with this high-end patient. Confiding in strangers is something that Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in his novels. It is something that Zelda was known to do. For Luce's version of Zelda, she uses the bare walls of a room through which she perceives a world of interested people, folks who can hear her confession and absolve her of the sin of loving life with too much fervor.
The script is non-stop. The rant is consistent and destructive and when the actress breaks from her character for a moment at the end to tell us what comes next Bollinger has her only weak moment: she is still the character she portrays which tells us in a weird way that she has never transformed into Zelda, but has always been Bollinger playing at being Zelda. It's a pity that the play ends this way, for even without the trappings of Zelda, the performance has been remarkable.
Director Carl Ritchie has guided his player through the long, dark experience but he has not given her the aid of character. He has shown us his actress rather than the actress who convinced the world that madcap is a lifestyle choice even with its possible consequences. Zelda never acted on stage; she preferred the world and its non-professional atmosphere in which to perform. That is the woman we hear about, but it isn't the woman we see. We see an exceptional rendition of the script, but never the object of the writing.
The Last Flapper plays at the Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Avenue, Pittsfield, MA through March 25. For information and tickets go to their website at www.thewhit.org or call 413-443-0289.