Passing the torch 


Written and directed by Libby Skala
New York Solo Play Festival
Where Eagles Dare Theatre
347 W. 36th St. ground floor (212/868-4444;
Closes Dec 9
Review by Charles Battersby

Lilia Skala might be best remembered for her Oscar-nominated role as "Mother Superior Maria" in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, but she had an extensive career beforehand as a stage and television actress, not to mention achieving theatre stardom in her native Austria before fleeing the country at the beginning of the Holocaust. Lilia's remarkable (and often improbable) life story was relived onstage by her actual granddaughter, Libby Skala.

Lilia! might be billed as a one-woman show, but at times it seemed as thought there were really two women on the stage. Libby Skala so effectively channeled her grandmother, Lilia, that it was difficult to believe that they were not two separate people.

Most of the show was composed of monologs delivered in the voice of Lilia, with Libby affecting a slight Austrian accent and speaking with a convincing older-sounding voice.

These monologs allow Lilia to directly address the audience and fill them in on the events of her adventurous life. It's charmingly written in an intimate tone with Lilia speaking to the audience like a grandmother telling stories to her grandkids (which is, no doubt, how much of the show was actually created). From keeping one step ahead of Hitler, to her first job in American show business, to her refusal to play another "nun role" for a million dollars after her Oscar-nominated "nun role," Lilia's story is an inspiring tale.

On occasion Libby played herself as well, or rather younger incarnations of herself. These scenes where the two Skala women interact were the most touching moments of the show, and also lent the play its structure. Libby first played herself as a thumb-sucking toddler, then later as an older child, a young actress, and eventually her adult self. Through these scenes the audience could trace the passage of time in Lilia's life as it relates to her monologs.

Both Libby and Lilia wore the same costume. Their flowing skirt and scarf seemed more suited to Lilia than Libby (particularly when she was playing a childhood version of herself). It was an effective choice, though, since the quick pace of the show precluded costume changes, and the appropriately dressed Lilia was on stage far more often than her granddaughter.

The set was almost nonexistent, just a pair of chairs (suspiciously similar to the chairs in the audience...), but the lighting design by Hideaki Tsutsui was used to convey changes in location and time. Tsutsui hit the chairs with sharply defined lights while darkening the rest of the stage to aptly convey the transitions from scene to scene and setting to setting.

Libby was her own director for the show, but one scene between Libby and Lilia showed what a great director the elder Ms. Skala must have been. In this scene a young Libby proves to be comically inept at a passage from Twelfth Night, and Lilia uses the story of her own arrival in America to explain Viola's thoughts during her monolog. Apparently these acting lessons worked well, since that inept younger version of Libby blossomed into an excellent performer.

  Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby