by Naomi McDougall Graham · August 15, 2014
Let me put it to you this way: if you miss the chance to see Joan Shepard's Confessions of Old Lady # 2, not only will you deprive yourself of an utterly delightful hour of theater, you will, much more direly, miss the chance to experience an incredible piece of oral theater history, hearkening back to the grand old days of the theater, straight from a woman who lived them all.
Confessions, written and performed by the inimitable Shepard, is the story of her extraordinary life in the theater; and what a life it is. Her career began in 1940, when Laurence Olivier cast her at the age of 7 as an extra in his Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet starring Vivian Leigh. From there her journey gets ever wilder, more star-studded, and more fascinating as she loses out on her first potential movie role, in an Elvis Presley film, when a producer makes clear that she will have to be "really nice" to Mr Presley if cast and she, newly married, says she will not; gets set on fire by Tallulah Bankhead while playing her daughter in a Broadway show; and gets hired by Lenny Bruce over the telephone to be in his show, which leads her to meeting her husband, Evan Thompson.
I'll leave the rest of the tales and punch lines to Shepard who recounts her life with boundless charm, candor, a delicious wit, and musical numbers to boot (aided by Michael Ferreri on the piano). Shepard will keep you captivated and in stitches for the duration, but, more profoundly than that, her deep and abiding passion and joy for the theater, even after all these years, seeps from her every pore and pours into the audience, forcing you to cry as well as laugh, and inviting you to feel the sweeping beauty of a life on the stage. You will be hard-pressed to leave the show without a swelling heart and a goofy grin.
The piece is directed by Margarett Perry who smartly works here with a light touch, allowing us to experience the simplicity and intimacy of this wonderful, funny-as-hell "old lady" telling us her stories. Perry also helpfully incorporates photo projections, helping to bring to our minds the many luminaries Shepard encounters on her yellow brick road.
Shepard and her husband were crucial in saving the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut when wrecking balls threatened to demolish that historic stage hallowed by the likes of Marlon Brando and Katherine Hepburn. This fact struck me as poignant watching Confessions and feeling in Shepard herself a window to an era of theater that can no longer be found.
Joan Shepard is not famous (she starts off the show by saying, "Let's get this out of the way, I was never in the movies"), but, when asked by a reporter when she was a child star what she wanted most in the world she said, "I just want to work all the time." And, by God, has she.
If you are a theater person, or a theater lover, or even like theater a little bit, this is a show for you. Just go see it. You will be enraptured, enthralled, and moved by this grand old dame of the theater.