LIVING SHADOWS A STORY OF MARY PICKFORD
Mary Pickford was Hollywood’s first superstar celebrity. Wide-eyed, blond-ringleted, and perpetually the 14-year-old waif, she captured the hearts of moviegoers in a series of silent films that made her the highest-paid actress in the world.
Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford married swashbuckling matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks and dominated the social life of Hollywood from their Beverly Hills mansion, Pickfair, where they entertained heads of state and partied with friends Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Gish. A hard-nosed businesswoman, Pickford co-founded United Artists, and she even managed to make the transition to talkies, winning a best actress Oscar for Coquette in 1929.
In creating a solo show of Pickford’s life, Tracey Power has had to find some conflicts, places where Pickford’s obvious successes rubbed up against harsher realities. Power’s Pickford complains that she was never really allowed to grow up, her adoring fans forcing her to remain forever sweet and innocent. Ironically, the success of Living Shadows in this Firehall Arts Centre/Ruby Slippers co-production, directed by Brian Dooley, has little to do with Pickford’s travails and everything to do with cute, sweet Tracey Power’s adorable acting.
Accompanied by Bill Costin’s accomplished but intrusive silent-film-style piano and Itai Erdal’s shifting lighting, Power takes us through Pickford’s life in flashback. Ten years after her retirement, director Billy Wilder approached her to play the role of over-the-hill film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. But who is Mary Pickford, Wilder asked. The play purports to tell us.
Originally, she was Gladys Smith from Toronto, poor and fatherless, head of the household and determined to make a success of herself, which she does, first on Broadway, then in Hollywood.
Told she’s “too little and too fat for pictures,” she meets and overcomes every obstacle, manifested dramatically in a series of characters that Power plays with great charm: her repressive Irish-Catholic mother, directors David Belasco and DW Griffiths (a talking cowboy hat at the top of her outstretched arm), film czar Adolph Zukor, abusive first husband Owen Moore, the womanizing Fairbanks, and Wilder himself.
\Will she agree to play Norma Desmond? Can she ever escape the deathly grip of celebrity? These questions hardly matter. The story Power tells is much less compelling than the performances she offers. As squeaky-voiced, precocious little Gladys, convincing Belasco to give her a part on Broadway, Power is utterly delightful. Ditto as adult Mary, sharing with the audience the visual codes of silent film acting (“eyes open wide, forehead wrinkled…”) and the body language that made her such a convincing little girl.
Of the celebrity artists currently featured on our stages— Tennessee Williams in Daniel MacIvor’s His Greatness and Buster Keaton in Sherry MacDonald’s The Stone Face—Power’s Mary Pickford is easily the cutest and most wholesome.