by Libby Skala
1440 W. 12th Av.
Sept. 20-Oct. 7
The title of Libby Skala’s one-woman show about her actress grandmother insists on capital letters and an exclamation mark. Lilia—or rather LILIA!—Skala is a grande dame in the old style, an elegant star with an emphatic presence. Precise theatrical gestures accompany her European accent as she flares her long skirt and adjusts her dramatic shawl.
Lilia has some impressive items on her resume. The first female architect in Austria, she became an actress in the 1930s, playing lead roles on stage and screen across Europe before making a narrow escape from the Nazis. Arriving in New York with two young children, no money and no English, she had to take factory jobs. But within two years she was starring on Broadway, and in 1963 she received an Acadesmy Award nomination for her role as the Mother Superior opposite Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field.
Libby Skala performs the show as a biographical tribute to her grandmother but also as an autobiographical exploration of her own career. We see both the blessings and burdens of having this somewhat overpowering woman as relative, mentor, inspiration, acting coach and personal critic. The trouble is that Libby’s life and character are much less interesting than Lilia’s.
The show’s strengths are substantial despite the limitations of the solo format that requires conventions like mimed phone calls and an invisible toddler awkwardly settling on the actor’s lap. For the most part Libby’s acting is accomplished and charming. Having toured LILIA! now for six years, she has buffed her grandmother’s character to a fine polish.
She also knows how to hold an audience, nicely controlling those moments when Lilia relives the deep drama of her life or its absurd comedy in subtle, intelligent anecdotes, from the life-and-death suspense of her passage out of Vienna in 1939 to the funny and moving matter-of-factness of her revelations about living with a husband she never loved.
First and foremost an actress, Lilia reveals herself most fully in her show biz tales. She twirls and laughs at the inanities of Hollywood, recalling how she was offered “only nun parts” after her success in Lilies of the Field, and she beautifully delivers an amusing story about her experience with David Mamet on House of Games.
I would like to have heard more about Lilia’s career as a working actor. Her extensive film and TV resume has a distinct Hollywood North quality, with credits from The Phil Silvers Show and McCloud to Guiding Light and Flashdance. Instead we get scenes of Lilia bullying Libby out of her favorite sweater, Lilia imposing herself on Libby as audition coach, Lilia asking Libby with her dying breath to write a play about her. LILIA! is an effective tribute. LIBBY! might not be.