THEATER & DANCE
Review

Angelica Page's 'Turning Page' a beguiling, uncanny tribute

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Angelica Page memorably conjures her mother/theater great Geraldine in one-woman show 'Turning Page'

Before announcing the winner for lead actress at the 1986 Academy Awards, F. Murray Abraham, elated that the recipient was his stage friend Geraldine Page, exclaimed, "I consider this woman the greatest actress in the English language."

This wasn't simply congratulatory rhetoric. Page, who had been previously nominated seven times by the academy before winning on her eighth try for her performance in the "The Trip to Bountiful," was the consummate actor's actor.

With her refreshing bag-lady style, emotional delicacy and curveball comedy, she had a habit of stealing whatever film she was in, no matter how minor the part. But her chief contribution was in the theater, where in plays by Tennessee Williams, Anton Chekhov, Alan Ayckbourn and Noël Coward, she demonstrated just how versatile the Method could be.

Angelica Page paid tribute to her mother this weekend at the Greenway Arts Alliance in her beguiling one-woman show "Turning Page," which was directed by ace veteran Wilson Milam and featured in Perspectives, a series of solo shows. Angry with herself for not finishing the book about her mother that she promised her she would complete, she did something better — she "channeled" her. (The word is Angelica's and it is hauntingly apt.)

The show was very much a work in progress. Production values were minimal, the organization was informal and Angelica wasn't yet off book. But this rough-hewn offering provided a memorable showcase for the marvelous eccentricities of an Actors Studio original, who hasn't yet received her posthumous due.

It was also an opportunity to become better acquainted with Angelica's own considerable gifts as a performer. Since getting cast in the 1998 Broadway production of "Side Man," she has carved out a solid if low-key career on stage and screen. The limelight has so far eluded her, but this piece reveals what she can do.

With her tousled blond hair and slightly frazzled demeanor, she looks more like the sister of Courtney Love than the daughter of not just one but two acting legends, Page and Rip Torn. But when she wrapped her head in a scarf or donned a wig, it was uncanny the way she captured her mother's fluttering breath, fluty vocal variations and manic mannerism shielding a vulnerability that could never stay hidden for long.

While conjuring Page, Angelica provided background about her family life. In the end, it became clear why she adopted her mother's name and relinquished her father's, though the piece is too emotionally honest to bother about settling old scores. The tears Angelica shed on stage were real — and tinged with a philosophical maturity.

Her mother's death in 1987 at 62 was a shock that wasn't easy to recover from. Page had been performing on Broadway in "Blithe Spirit." She didn't show up for her matinee performance and was found dead in the Chelsea townhouse that I used to walk past as a young man drawn to the theater the way a novitiate might linger outside a holy site.

Long resisting her parents' trade, Angelica slowly but inevitably came around. It was her mother's dying wish that Angelica would open herself up to the pleasures of acting, for the stage for Page was a source of joy.

For Angelica, however, a childhood surrounded by show people was a mixed blessing. Of course there was the glamour — the wild parties at the Chateau Marmont in which her parents played host to a Hollywood Who's Who, a New York childhood in which acting guru Lee Strasberg and jazz great Miles Davis provided momentary companionship and comfort.

The downsides, however, were considerable. Disorder ruled the household, with boxes of theater memorabilia stacked everywhere and unwashed dishes stewing in the sink.

Worse were the volatile fights between her parents, sparked by her father's jealous paranoia and flagrant philandering. She doesn't confirm rumors that one of his mistresses actually moved in at one point, but she recalled that this was the time in her adolescence when she took to wearing all black and wanted to date Sid Vicious.

But "Turning Page," which is likely to return to Los Angeles in a more polished form, isn't so much an indictment of Angelica's father as a loving recollection of her mother, an actor who devoted herself to playing real people by never forgetting that she was one of them, who found stardom by shunning it, who privileged work not as an ends but as a means — of living.

One anecdote brought back for me that strange, sad, rapturous quality in Page's acting that lured me to pursue a life in the theater. After Torn apparently threw a kettle in rage, Page, looking up in bemusement, asks the family to take a moment to admire the extraordinary pattern that has been created by the water on the ceiling.

For those who have been touched by Page's sorcery — and I personally don't know any great actor who hasn't been — Angelica's virtuosic conjuring of her mother's spirit is something to behold.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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