Lady Grey (in ever lower light) Sends Off Streaming Shows in Style

Sally Burtenshaw in Lady Grey at Mildlred's Umbrella
Sally Burtenshaw in Lady Grey at Mildlred's Umbrella Photo by Larry McKee
A young girl, felled for months due to a paralyzing virus, lays immobile as she is watched, considered, and examined by others. Later in life, that same girl, now a woman suffering a different tragedy, is the one who is watching, considering, examining. Only this time, it’s far more than a body being looked at, it’s a life.

Are you your story or is your story you, asks Will Eno in his 32-minute monologue, Lady Grey (in ever lower light), now being streamed from the stage by Mildred’s Umbrella. Of course, Eno never explicitly asks that question. That would be far too direct for a playwright who prefers to dabble in clever wordplay and streams of not always consciousness to weave his quirky, existential walloping work.

Instead, Eno gives us a woman grappling with loss, loneliness, and failure in love/marriage. More interestingly, she’s struggling with how to define herself amidst all this life she finds herself living through faults or no fault of her own. All this is fed through a narrative backbone of the classic classroom assignment of show and tell, juxtaposing innocence and jadedness into the mix of a life led.

Greg Dean directs this sparse and handsomely filmed piece with Sally Burtenshaw as Eno’s unnamed lady speaking to us from her armchair on a bare stage. It takes a deft hand to present Eno’s brand of theater, knowing how far to let out the line of absurdity without the whole exercise getting tangled into a ball of unknowable silliness.

Dean never falls into that trap. Honoring both the humor but most importantly the heartache and anger in Lady Grey, the direction is dialed back to natural plus, letting the play flow from Burtenshaw rather than be “performed” by her or enhanced by too much fanciful staging.

And it’s an excellent performance. English-accented but not overly precious about it, Burtenshaw plays it cool and lady-like with just a splash of oddness. She breaks 4th wall throughout the entire show with the command of someone unapologetically interested in talking only to and about herself.

As with many of Eno’s plays, we don’t always know what the character is going on about, but we’re compelled to watch thanks in large part to Burtenshaw’s layers of rebuff and vulnerability. Do we hug her or leave her be? Is she sanguine or in the depths? We keep watching to find out.

And in this case, watching a streamed show actually comes in handy. As much as we'd rather eat dirt than watch another play online (especially when we know the real thing is coming just round the mountain) Lady Grey is in many ways better enjoyed in virtual format where one can pause, rewind and watch again.

Eno’s plays are so full of unexpected gorgeous gifts of lines and phrases that it’s easy to get caught up trying to remember what you just heard, thereby missing some of the more poignant points of this quick show. Add to it that it often takes a second or even third viewing to completely clue into what Eno is trying to say, and you have the perfect medium with which to watch and rewatch the performance.

At one point in the play, the lady laments all life’s hard lessons where nothing at all is learned. Mildred’s Umbrella has learned that in this hard time, if you’re going to go out with one last streamed show, a short Eno play in the hands of Dean and Burtenshaw is the perfect way to go.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) streams through August 13 at Tickets are free and donations are appreciated.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman