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Living Legacy
By Shawn Stone

Written and performed by Libby Skala, directed by Gabriel Barre

The Arts Center of the Capital Region, March 16

Libby Skala’s one-woman show, a tribute to her grandmother, actress Lilia Skala, arrived in town at a fortuitous moment. It’s Academy Awards season, and Lilia Skala earned her footnote in film history by winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1963’s Lilies of the Field, in which she played a nun opposite Sidney Poitier. To put both her life and the Oscars in proper perspective, Skala was working in the lost-and-found department of New York’s City Center at the time of her nomination. In the 1963 audio clip that began this engaging evening, an announcer from radio station WOR wondered if this wasn’t a comment on our culture. It was then, and is now—as the details of Lilia’s journey illustrated.

Moving back and forth in time, and shifting from first-person monologues in which Lilia reminisces about her life to scenes between grandmother and granddaughter through the years, Libby crafts a portrait both of a fascinating person and of a poignant connection between two kindred spirits.

Lilia led a remarkable life. She was the first woman architect to graduate from the University of Dresden, Germany, but promptly abandoned architecture for acting. As her granddaughter tells us, Lilia initially chose architecture because she thought it a bit like acting, having to get inside the mind of the client to perfectly create the building they desired. A few institutional building projects removed the romance from the profession. Lilia married, but continued to act on the stage in Austria and Germany. She and her family fled the Nazis for America. Struggles followed, but she was eventually able to reestablish herself as an actress on the stage, and in TV and movies. Imagine a career arc that ranged from appearing in a George Bernard Shaw play on the Munich stage in 1934 to appearing in the pilot for Raymond Burr’s Ironside.

Libby Skala became her grandmother to relate this narrative: the Viennese accent, the formal Old World comportment, the manner of the great actress with an only slightly exaggerated sense of her own greatness. She also had to be this Grand Dame imitating herself as a young women, and Libby managed the shadings of these layers of character seemingly without effort. All this was accomplished through voice and expression; in a 70-minute, one-act show, there’s no opportunity for a costume change.

Libby also played herself as very young girl, eager acting student, and as a struggling young professional actor, charting the course of her relationship with Lilia. Her perfectly composed performance as Lilia, however, almost made it difficult to accept her as herself, but she did alternate between the two characters convincingly.

Gabriel Barre’s straightforward staging made the most of the simple, two-chair set. There were subtle light changes to support the mood, and one lone prop, a sweater that provided two of the evening’s most dramatic moments.

As playwright, Libby Skala did a deft job of placing her grandmother in the context of historical incident while keeping the focus on the personal drama, and the unique qualities of Lilia’s personality. Lilia Skala was a person who had to believe in herself. While this may sound facile, the play persuasively sets forth that this was the key to her ability to survive, and her greatest strength.

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