Vanessa Redgrave, the “Greatest Actress of Our Time,” according to playwrights Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller — also the daughter, the sister, the mother and the romantic partner of great actors — did not make her Broadway debut until the age of 49. This was “a sadly belated Broadway debut,” as Times critic Clive Barnes put it in his review of Ibsen’s The Lady of the Sea in 1976, raving about Redgrave as “a child of nature, a fact of life, a sensuously pagan spirit and quite conceivably the most purely beautiful actress on the English‐speaking stage.”
Americans might know her better for her screen roles — her Oscar-winning performance in “Julia” (1977) or Emmy winner for “Playing for Time” (1980), and the five other movies for which she was nominated for an Oscar: Morgan (1967), Isadora (1969), Mary Queen of Scots (1972), The Bostonians (1985) Howards End (1993.) But she sees herself as a stage actress.
“I think the theater is as essential to civilization as safe, pure water.”
“Theater helps people keep sane.”
The Lady from the Sea, 1976
In Henrik Ibsen’s 1889 play, the wife of a doctor moves to a small Norwegian town in the mountains, away from the seaside fjord where she grew up. When her former fiancé, a sailor, returns after a long absence, she is forced to choose between her former and her present life.
Orpheus Descending, 1989
In this play by Tennessee Williams, a Sicilian immigrant’s daughter, unhappily running a dry-goods store in the South and tending to her dying husband, is reawakened by a mysterious drifter who appears in town.
Not About Nightingales, 1999
Redgrave was not a performer in this Tennessee Williams play, but one of its producers, along with her brother Corin Redgrave, who did star in it.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2003
Redgrave won a Tony in her role as Mary Tyrone, the mother addicted to morphine in this revival of Eugene O’Neill’s posthumously produced tragedy based on his own family.
The stellar cast included Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman (now both deceased) and Robert Sean Leonard. (Scroll to the bottom to read a personal reminiscence from Dennehy)
The Year of Magical Thinking, 2007
Redgrave was nominated for a Tony in this solo play adapted from Joan Didion’s best-selling 2005 memoir about her shock, denial and ultimate acceptance following her husband’s heart attack and the serious illness of her daughter.
Driving Miss Daisy, 2010
Redgrave was again nominated for a Tony for portraying a Southern Jewish widow opposite James Earl Jones as her Black chauffeur in this first Broadway production of Alfred Uhry’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning play.
Here’s a feature that includes a snippet of her performance when the production was in London
Vanessa Redgrave has also performed in three plays Off-Broadway
Vita and Virginia, 1994
Redgrave portrayed the British writer Vita Sackville-West opposite Eileen Atkins’ Virginia Woolf in this play by Atkins that dramatizes a selection of letters between the two. Redgrave won an Obie for her performance.
Antony and Cleopatra, 1997
Redgrave directed and starred in Shakespeare’s play at the Public Theater opposite David Harewood.
The Revisionist, 2013
Redgrave professed herself “immensely excited” to co-star opposite Jesse Eisenberg’s in this 2013 play, the younger actor’s sophomore effort as a playwright. She portrays a distant Polish relative whom Eisenberg, as a callow young writer, is visiting. She spoke with both a heavy Polish accent and more than a few lines of dialogue in Polish.
The Inheritance, 2018
At the age of 81, Redgrave portrayed a frail mother who belatedly learned to love her gay son, who died of AIDS. She did this in London. When Matthew Lopez’s play moved to Broadway the following year, she bowed out. (Lois Smith, 88, was cast.)
“I hope we see Redgrave at least one more time here,” Michael Riedel wrote shortly after the news broke. “She was rhapsodic as Vita Sackville-West in “Vita and Virginia” in 1994. She held audiences rapt as Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2007. And she broke our hearts as Mary Tyrone in the 2003 revival of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
“Brian Dennehy, who played James Tyrone in that production, has a great story about Redgrave. He had done the play in Chicago and thought the Broadway run would be fairly easygoing. After all, he knew the lines, the role and the play. But at the first table reading with Redgrave, he told me, “She was doing so many astonishing things, I realized I had to throw out everything I thought I knew and start all over again.”
“Sometimes she’d make her first entrance from the porch, sometimes from the dark at the top of the stairs. Dennehy and co-stars Robert Sean Leonard and Philip Seymour Hoffman were never sure what she was going to be like each night — which made the production all that much more brilliant, since the Tyrones never know what to expect from Mary, a morphine addict.”