Actor Tracie Bennett was asked recently whether she dies a little bit each time she performs Judy Garland in "End of the Rainbow."
"No, I don't feel that at all," Bennett said, a bit puzzled by what might have been a stupid question.
The thought bubbled up again after watching Bennett in Friday's opening of "End of the Rainbow" at the Guthrie Theater. From what source of energy does this wiry woman draw her manic portrayal of Garland near the end of life?
Shouting, crying, kicking and screaming with a quavering voice that would make Katharine Hepburn sue for royalties, Bennett devours the London hotel room in which Peter Quilter's play is set.
It is both an exhausting and a bravura feat of physical stamina by an actor who understands that this play reveals not much more than a slim portrait of addiction -- the disease's manifestations evident in Garland's manipulative bullying and helpless vulnerability. By December 1968, Garland could no longer spit out the hook, and whether she acknowledged it or not, she was drowning in chemicals.
Quilter finds Garland on the eve of her "Talk of the Town" engagement in London. In the faded pastels of a once-elegant room (designed by William Dudley), Judy has arrived with new fiancé, Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey). They meet Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), a pianist who has returned for another round of abuse after leaving the Garland merry-go-round years earlier.
Bennett immediately kicks into gear with a broadly mannered Garland -- operatically profane, bluff, wily, resourceful. As the play moves along, Dudley's set nicely transitions to the "Talk of the Town" club, where Bennett takes Garland's brittle sanity on a high-wire act. In song, she strangles lyrics with a vibrato that has long lost its discipline; in style, she staggers in a public death spiral.
The two men are the yin and yang of Garland's existence. Pelphrey's Dean begins earnestly, over his head in the notion that he can "manage Judy Garland." The politesse erodes and Deans becomes the crude but compliant enabler.
Anthony, a gay admirer, proposes salvation for Garland, asking her to run away from the pain and static and live with him quietly in the country. Cumpsty makes a poignant and provoking "what if?" plea, even as we recognize the impossibility.
But this is a play about Bennett's big, chewy performance. The question here is whether she and director Terry Johnson have constructed the Garland melodrama so consciously that we can't connect with the fragile human beneath the surface. Were that accomplished, that would be a portrayal to die for.