Addressing the Ghost

updated 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THEIR RELATIONSHIP WAS DEFINED BY SILENCE. IT BEGAN ON MARCH 8, 1943. when Michael Redgrave noted in his journal an air raid on London and a rehearsal—but said nothing about the birth of his third child, Lynn. It continued throughout her youth: The renowned actor, who delighted in Lynn's obviously talented siblings, Vanessa and Corin, would often turn speechless, his face a blank mask, when alone with his lumpish, weepy younger daughter. In the end, as he lay dying of Parkinson's disease, the quiet was almost complete.

"For a man who couldn't communicate with me to be stricken with a disease that slowly robs you of speech was a double whammy," Redgrave says. "I'd try to make him laugh. Even then, in my 40s, I couldn't sit in a room with him and let the silence fall. It reminded me too much of the silence that had always been between us."

Today, eight years after Sir Michael's death, Redgrave is trying to banish that silence once and for all with Shakespeare for My Father, a one-woman show she wrote and is currently starring in on Broadway. It tells the story of her troubled relationship with Sir Michael, using reminiscences and relevant passages from Shakespeare, the elder Redgrave's professional forte. What emerges is a portrait of a remote, brilliant man, an alcoholic who was the bane of his family's life as well as the joy. "There were times my father was probably the most difficult man on earth," Redgrave says, "but he had his wonderful side. He had a smile to light the heavens, and he was a great artist." The play, which recently won Redgrave a Tony nomination for best actress, has critics and audiences mesmerized.

At 50, Redgrave boasts a track record any actor would envy: an Oscar nomination for the 1966 movie Georgy Girl, dozens of stage productions, a successful TV series, House Calls, and countless other TV and movie roles. But her older sister, Vanessa, 56, is the Redgrave most often said to have inherited genius. And when Lynn, Vanessa and Corin (now 53 and an actor as well) were growing up in London and Stratford-upon-Avon, the family spotlight rarely shone on Lynn.

"I was a pitiful little mess," says Lynn. "I was an emotional child, and when I was angry, I cried." She was also chubby, a fact she says her father didn't let her forget. "He'd run his hands down my side to see if my waist was fat."

Lynn knew better than to complain. "In our family everything had to be wonderful even when it wasn't," she says. Their mother, actress Rachel Kempson, taught her children that "what came first was my father's art." Certainly his art was hard to ignore. If Sir Michael was appearing in a comedy, his mood at home was playful; if he was Hamlet, gloom prevailed.

He seemed mysterious, in part per-haps because of hi-homosexuality. which Kempson knew about when she married him but which neither Lynn nor the public learned of until years later. "But I don't think that had anything to do with his inability to communicate with me," she says.

As the years passed and Lynn began to succeed at acting, the tensions between father and daughter eased a bit. Sir Michael had been surprised by her career choice ("I didn't look right. I didn't sound right"). But at the premiere of Georgy Girl in 1966, he was beaming. On the last day they ever spent together, three weeks before he died, Sir Michael look her hand and said uncharacteristically, "I love you."

After his death, Lynn was devastated. She had a life that she loved with her husband, director John Clark, and their three children (Ben, now 25 and a flight instructor, Kelly, 23, an actress, and Annabel, 12). She had triumphed over bulimia, a condition that had plagued her for 15 years. Yet she ached to know her father's "essence," as she says in her play, and she spent years combing "my memory, my photo albums, his books." What she found was acceptance. "I understood how lucky I was to have all I had—the good and the bad," she says.

She wrote her play in 1991, after realizing her feelings were not unique. "After my father died, strangers would stop me on buses and tell stories about their fathers," she says. "I began to think this draw lo the father was a universal theme." Her husband, who is also the play's director, worried at first that "it was too private, and people would gel embarrassed watching it," he says. "But Lynn does it with such honesty that she overcomes that."

So far, Lynn's siblings—with whom she is not close—and her mother have not seen Shakespeare for My Father. She isn't sure what they'd think of it. "Vanessa and Corin's stories, should they ever choose lo tell them, would be very different," she says.

TOBY KAHN in New York City

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