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A Touch of Magic, a Touch of Fire

Actress-director-playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag ponders the big questions facing mankind with the courage of her cosmopolitan convictions.

May 30, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Lillian Garrett-Groag sits in a corner booth of a mildly fashionable Los Feliz eatery. Seeking refuge from painters who have invaded her nearby home and dutifully awaiting an interview, she's enjoying a brief break in a schedule that has, of late, required her to shuttle back and forth between San Diego and the Bay Area. On Thursday, a new staging of her latest play "The Magic Fire," first seen in March at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, opens at the Old Globe.

Dressed casually in a dark-blue shirt and black leggings, with a few pieces of arty jewelry, she is striking but doesn't call too much attention to herself. Indeed, she looks comfortable here; she could be any kind of artist, writer or intellectual.

In fact, she's all these things. Raised in Argentina and Uruguay, educated in Europe and the U.S., Garrett-Groag is the kind of person for whom the term "multicultural" seems woefully inadequate. A multilingual, multitalented woman, she is equally at home discussing 17th century French literature, Wagnerian librettos or Latin American electoral politics.

What's more, her career, too, has more than one side. Garrett-Groag is one of the few women in American theater today who enjoy the kind of successful hyphenate career usually reserved for men--the Sam Shepards and Athol Fugards of the world. She has had success as an actress on Broadway, at the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory, among other theaters, and she is also known for her work as a director of theater and opera and as a playwright.

An erudite and volatile conversationalist, Garrett-Groag tends to careen between topics both grand and quotidian. Listen for a while, however, and leitmotifs emerge. She is fascinated by the complexities of man, the social animal; questions of collective ethics, in particular, seem to occupy the space closest to her soul.

"I think that any kind of easy description of a human being or culture is false," says Garrett-Groag. "We are extremely paradoxical people. I believe that a certain kind of thinking, if it's really complicated and wonderful and interesting, has so many sides to it, and among them are some that are very dangerous. That's the way we are, and that's what interests me."

Jack O'Brien, artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where Garrett-Groag is an associate artist, describes her as a "fascinating, compelling, interesting woman."

"The odd thing about Lillian is that she seems always to have been in my creative life here," O'Brien continues. "She's acted, directed, translated, adapted and written [plays]. There's practically nothing that she hasn't done."

"I consider Lillian to be one of the really great theater treasures in this country," agrees Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Libby Appel, who has known Garrett-Groag since both were graduate students at Northwestern University in the late 1960s. "She's a marvelous actress, a witty and brilliant director who does classical work with great style and understanding. And I couldn't be more thrilled with her turn toward playwriting. In each one of those fields, she excels. She's an extraordinary woman."

O'Brien and Appel should know. Both have directed Garrett-Groag, the actress; hired Garrett-Groag, the director; and staged "The Magic Fire," an autobiographical portrait of a family of European immigrants in 1952 Buenos Aires. Named one of Time magazine's 10 best plays of 1998, the play was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it premiered in 1997 before traveling to Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center last year.


The title "The Magic Fire" refers to the circle of fire that the Norse god Wotan erects to shield and entrap Brunnhilde, leader of the Valkyries in Wagner's "Ring" cycle. In Garrett-Groag's play, Otto, patriarch of the Berg-Guarneri family--a clan of Austrian and Italian immigrants living in Peronist Argentina--tells the ring of fire story to his young daughter, Lise. Wotan's strategy also serves as metaphor for the father's efforts to protectively surround his family in a world of literature, culture and, most of all, opera, sheltering them from the ugly political realities just outside their door. Inevitably, the external world intrudes, primarily in the person of a next-door neighbor who shares the family's love of culture but is also an officer in the oppressive regime.

Narrated by an adult Lise, the play is an attempt to reconcile recollections of girlhood experiences with what may actually have happened. It is a memory play, but not simply a memory play, and the role of Lise presents a formidable challenge according to veteran actress Kandis Chappell, who takes the role in San Diego.

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