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Vivien: The Triumph of Josephine Hogan

left: KC Kratt's photo of Josephine Hogan as Vivien Leigh, who she portrays in "Vivien: the Triump and Madness of Vivien Leigh" at the New Phoenix; right: Vivien Leigh herself.

She looks like Vivien, sounds like Vivien—and now Jospehone Hogan plays Vivien Leigh at the New Phoenix

Josephine Hogan had always been told that she bore a striking resemblance to actress Vivien Leigh. That’s quite a compliment, when you recall that Leigh’s beauty was so remarkable that critics frequently lamented that it distracted from her astonishing talent.

Hogan long had the idea of portraying Leigh on stage in the back of her mind, and then at the 2009 Artie Awards at the Town Ballroom, while dressed to the nines, Richard Lambert approached her with a specific script, saying, “I’d like you to play Vivien Leigh.” Then, on the same night, Jimmy Janowski, the evening’s arbiter of glamour told her, “Josephine, you look just like Vivien Leigh!”

“It seemed like fate,” exclaims Hogan.

The actress is, indeed playing Vivien Leigh, in Vivien: the Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh by Rick Foster, at the New Phoenix Theatre, under the direction of Darleen Pickering Hummert. Leigh is best remembered as Hollywood’s Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind, and for her portrayal of fragile Blanche Dubois, opposite Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the 20th century’s most admired stars, she is also known for her 20-year marriage to Laurence Olivier, and for her tragic madness—what today might be called bipolar disorder.

“The script that Richard first showed me was set at Vivien’s last press conference,” explains Hogan. “It was full of gossip and that sort of thing. But later we found this other script, by Rick Foster, which focused more on her long marriage to Laurence Olivier, and her personal struggles. We felt it had more substance.”

The play is set in 1967 on the first day of rehearsals for the London production of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, in which Leigh was to appear with Michael Redgrave. She would not live to see the opening night. A recurrence of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered years earlier, killed her at the age of 53. Leigh famously ignored her physicians, continuing to smoke, drink, and to maintain her sick room as if it were a salon.

“I’ve always had particular affection for Vivien Leigh and for Laurence Olivier,” admits Hogan. “In part, of course, because people have often told me that I look like her, but also because she is such a wonderful actress. To prepare for the show, I read biographies of her life, and I watched a number of her films. I watched Gone With the Wind four times. I watched Waterloo Bridge, which is my favorite, and also was Vivien’s favorite. I watched Ship of Fools—for that film, actually, I skipped all the scenes except hers. And I looked at all the Youtube video I could find of Vivien speaking, so I could hear her inflections and watch her mannerisms.”

Among the most startling revelations of the play is Olivier’s egotism and arguably callous behavior toward his wife, throughout their marriage and especially during her illness. Did dwelling on this while preparing to play Vivien Leigh diminish Hogan’s affection for Olivier?

The actress pauses thoughtfully and then concedes, “It did.”

“I understand that it can be very difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who is ill, especially with mental illness,” says Hogan. “But when she awoke in a sanitarium for the first time, after having been in a medically induced coma for several days, she asked for Larry and was told that he had left for a vacation in India. She was alone. How can a man justify that? I honestly feel that a lot of her depression had nothing to do with her illness but with the way she was treated. It is especially tragic when you consider that with today’s medicines, it is very possible that she could have been fine.”

Among the most fun aspects of preparing for Vivien: the Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh was the photo shoot with photographer K. C. Kratt.

“One Friday morning we got together with K. C.,” says Hogan. “We pulled together some clothes and they did my hair and makeup. The fur in one the pictures is a fake that I picked up in a bin for three bucks! We had seen some glamour photography of Lorna Hill that K. C. had done, so we knew what we wanted and it was a lot of fun, with the lights and all.”

For the look of Vivien in the show, they elected to go with a tailored suit.

“Vivien wore a lot of suits later in her life,” observes Hogan. “We imagined that she would have looked stylish and smart, even at a rehearsal. So that is the look we imagined.”

How does Hogan like engaging in another one-person show? (She enjoyed great success as Shirley Valentine at the Kavinoky, years ago.)

“It is lonely up there, and, frankly, a bit frightening,” she says. “It is a difficult script, because of the emotional range. But Richard [Lambert] and Darleen [Pickering Hummert] filled my dressing room with photos of Vivien’s friends. So I am backstage with Noel Coward, and Larry Olivier, and all those wonderful people. I feel as if I am in excellent company!”

Vivien: the Triumph and Madness of Vivien Leigh continues at the New Phoenix Theatre through November 13. Call 853-4282 for reservations.