A star is reborn

Janis Stevens’ powerhouse portrait of Vivien Leigh keeps her busy—and keeps improving

Janis Stevens had a bright idea: that she could play Vivien Leigh. Well, duh!

Janis Stevens had a bright idea: that she could play Vivien Leigh. Well, duh!

That was quick.

Actress Janis Stevens opened Vivien at the Sacramento Theatre Company on December 15. And within days, the one-woman show was sold out for the remainder of the run (ending January 6).

That’s pretty good for a show that was a late substitute in the schedule, not listed in STC’s season brochure. But it’s not surprising, given that people still talk about Stevens’ Vivien at California Stage back in 2000, when this theatrical portrait of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire star Vivien Leigh was still in development.

The fact that she got the show to New York in 2005—and garnered a Drama Desk nomination for Best Solo Performance—only heightened anticipation for another engagement here, in the city where Stevens lives (and teaches at American River College).

The current Sacramento run is a tune-up for a higher-profile gig. “I close at STC on the 6th, then I get on a plane that night, and I start rehearsals in Philadelphia on the 8th,” Stevens told SN&R recently.

Vivien opens January 17 at Philly’s Walnut Street Theatre, which has been in business since 1809.

“It’s illustrious,” Stevens said of the venue. “It’s where A Streetcar Named Desire premiered, before it went to New York.” That kind of detail is significant to Stevens, who is aware of history, and might fairly be described as having “old-school” sensibilities.

An eventual Off-Broadway run for Vivien is also a possibility.

Stevens and playwright Rick Foster have worked on the show Vivien for years, sculpting Leigh’s often unhappy life into a script written with Stevens’ considerable abilities in mind. “I first performed it at Sierra Repertory Theatre in 1997,” Stevens recalled. “Then we worked on it for three years in the Bay Area.” In 2000, Vivien had a workshop run in Sonora, followed by modestly-publicized spring and fall engagements at the tiny California Stage in Sacramento.

Then came the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Vivien opened on Sept. 8, 2001—and got buried by a national disaster three days later.

When a New York run finally was secured in 2005, Stevens brought in a new director—her one-time acting teacher, Peter Sander. They made some changes. “[Foster] flew out, and he and Peter and I really attacked the end of the show. And I think we have succeeded with that,” she said.

Stevens feels Vivien now is a stronger show than when local audiences saw it in 2000. “The journey has deepened, and I think it’s a more satisfying piece altogether,” she said. “It’s certainly more satisfying for me to play.” She credits Sander for bringing the play to the level that attracted the Drama Desk nomination.

Adding to the credibility, Stevens has reached the same age as Vivien Leigh at the time of her death (53).

Having lived with Vivien for over a decade, Stevens said, “What I know now better than anything is how I channel her, and don’t worry any longer about whether I can pull the wool over people’s eyes—mimicking her and looking like her. It’s more about how I let this woman’s essence filter through me, and bring a real human being to life on stage for people.”

Stevens is gratified to have a full calendar nowadays. “I’ve been working nonstop. I don’t know whether it’s been the Drama Desk nomination, or whether I’m outlasting some of the others. But it’s been great.”

After Vivien closes in Philadelphia on February 3, Stevens flies home to direct Fool for Love at Capital Stage. Then she’ll be at the Space (California Stage) doing Love, Isadora, a play about Isadora Duncan. After that, she expects to be at Theater at Monmouth, a summer series in Maine featuring Shakespeare and modern classics. “It’s old-time rep, and I love it,” Stevens said.

A personal afterword. This writer saw Stevens do Vivien in the spring of 2000, in a Sonora workshop. I rated it a standout—a remarkable combination of a viscerally powerful actress (working at the top of her game) with a skillfully-crafted, custom script that etched an elusive, famous personality. Very occasionally, reviewing in a smallish theater market like ours, I encounter a developing show that displays genuine big-league potential. And when I saw Vivien seven years ago, I wondered, “What might people say, if this one gets all the way to New York?”

Well, now we know.