Frances Farmer was a movie actress from the 1930's and 40's, loved for her radiant natural beauty, admired for her powerful, passionate acting, but remembered and immortalized for her tragic, wasted life. Her violent fall from grace was engineered by her mother, supported by a communist-paranoid government, and justified by a gossip-hungry press. In Sally Clark's fact based play, Saint Frances of Hollywood, currently running at The Manhattan Theatre Source, Sarah Ireland breaths vibrant life back into Farmer by skillfully resurrecting the feisty spirit and iron will that characterized Hollywood's most tragic starlet. Mounted on a bare white stage with no set, scenery, or props, Saint Frances of Hollywood relies on its tight plot, crackling dialogue, and well-nuanced acting to tell its story. The only special effect used to set the mood is a black and white movie clip from the 1930's Farmer film Come and Get It. Here the audience can see for itself why Farmer was once a beloved icon of the screen. Her glowing beauty is immediately evident. With high cheekbones, wavy blond hair, large blue eyes, and a face full of expression and charisma, her presence commands both attention and reverence.
Farmer's mother was a conservative, religious housewife determined to give her daughter a glamorous Hollywood life. But as Farmer matured, her mother's hold on her loosened. An idealist at heart, Farmer wanted to protest the treatment of migrant workers, join movements to help the poor, work with theater groups promoting social change, and find a way to make capitalism work for everyone.
Her passion for such changes was interpreted as a distaste for the government, which in that era meant being branded with the deadly label "communist." The press balked at her activities, her mother denounced her opinions, and the movie studio sent her to work in Mexico as punishment for canceling out on two big-budget films.
Farmer's refusal to pander to the press inspired it to paint her as a communist lunatic. After she physically lashed out at a hairdresser who called her as much, the government asked Farmer's mother to have her committed. Her mother readily agreed, then eerily proceeded to dress like her daughter and answer her fan mail while she was institutionalized.
Nine months later, Farmer emerged from the medical facility and attacked her treatment there. She reported that she was repeatedly raped by orderlies, prostituted to soldiers, subjected to constant electric shock, given insulin shots to stun her body, and forced to endure eight-hour baths in ice water. And yet her mother still sent her back to the facility a year later when Farmer announced she would rather return to the picket lines than to a Hollywood soundstage.
Unable to break her spirit, the mental institution performed a lobotomy designed to give Farmer only the most basic of brain functions. This time they sent her back into society as a shell of her former self.
With such heavy subject matter, humor is an essential aspect of this production. Fortunately, there are plenty of laughs, especially in the scenes within the mental institution. Jeffrey Plunkett hysterically plays Dr. Betelguese with a squeaky voice that makes every word play as a joke. Fiona Jones is perfect as Farmer's crazy, rubber ducky-obsessed cellmate, and Kendra Kohrt is excellent as a chipper nurse who breaks into Nazi-like seriousness when she means business.
But there is no doubt that the play is firmly planted on Ireland's capable shoulders. She gives a stunning performance as Farmer, one that, on a Broadway stage, would undoubtedly earn her a Tony nomination. Not only does Ireland have the same classic beauty and interesting face, but she manages to be spirited, zesty, and funny even in the darkest of moments.
Farmer's life was defined by her misfortune. Society took away her talent, butchered her beauty, raped her body, destroyed her mind, and sent her back into the world a compliant, mindless drone. Fortunately, her story lives on in movies like Jessica Lange's Frances, songs like Nirvana's "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," and plays like Saint Frances of Hollywood. This legacy proves that even after lobotomy and death, Farmer's voice was never silenced.