Imagine, in this month designated Women’s History Month in the United States, a world without Rita Moreno or Carol Channing or Kelli O’Hara or Barbra Streisand or Vanessa Redgrave or E. Faye Butler or Holly Twyford or Franchelle Stewart Dorn or Tana Hicken, all of them female actors of note who have graced Washington and world stages.
Now, image a world without Charles II.
That’s right: Charles II, the son of England’s Charles I, who was executed by the English Parliament in 1649 after a Civil War. In 1660, Charles II became king of England, Scotland and Ireland. He died in 1685.
There are two things we know about King Charles: he loved the theater and going to the theater which he reopened after theaters which had been banned during the reign of Oliver Cromwell. Charles II loved women, quite a few of them legend has it, some of whom became his mistresses. He loved in particular a woman Nell Gwynn, who was said to be his favorite, and by whom she had a son.
Gwynn is important in these imaginings. Imagine a world without her. Her life is a kind of drama, a story, if not a fable. It’s about a woman who became an actress, a famous actress and by today’s usage and verbiage, a star, maybe even a superstar, the first such personage. People flocked to her performances, and her skills as a story-performer, and wit and musicality, and no doubt her beauty.
She was a star actress at a time when that was rare. Even in Shakespeare’s time, all the roles were played by men. Male actors played not only kings but queens — warriors as well as women and witches.
With Charles II, a bon vivant of sorts and who reopened the doors, Gwynn was a prominent part of all that. By accounts of the time, she was a larger-than-life character and played larger-than life characters.
So, imagine a life world without Nell Gwynn, forerunner and stage mother, if you will, of all our actresses who created moments—live without screens—and whole days and nights on the stage, playing women and even at times, the men.
Alison Luff, who seems born to the stage and who has wit, talent and beauty, probably couldn’t imagine a world without Gwynn. Luff has performed the title role of Nell Gwynn in a play called “Nell Gwynn,” written by Jessica Swale, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in a run through March 10.
The role — and for that matter, having a life as a performer — has been a kind of wish come true for Luff, a Texas native, who has built her career with a strong musical element to it.
“I think I was born to it in some ways,” said Luff, who recalled seeing a production of “Beauty and the Beast” at the age of three in Houston. She started performing professionally at the age of ten.
“Nell Gwynn” first saw the klieg lights as a high successful production in 2016 in London. This is the third production of the play, making its East Coast debut at the Folger. It is directed by Folger’s Robert Richmond and includes original music composed by Kim Sherman.
English theater was grounded in Shakespeare, but in its Restoration state included works by John Dryden and other authors contemporary to the time. The production looks sumptuous, as befitting the period, all those wigs, voluminous dresses, shoes and major league hats.
“I think as an actress it’s really challenging and rich to play a part like this,” Luff said. “I just admire her so much. It is a rags to riches story, after all, she was raised in a brothel, was on the streets selling oranges. But she obviously had something, a gift, as an actress and human being. She was brave, amazing. She had a tenacity about her.”
Luff’s record is versatile. She took on the taxing role of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, in “Wicked,” Fantine in “Les Miserables,” Miss Honey in “Matilda” — as well as Rachel in the 2018 production of “Escape to Margaritaville” and roles in productions of “Ghost” and “Mamma Mia.”
For Luff, it’s a fair guess that the music, the acting, the singing, the many roles and openings and closing came together in her performance as Nell Gwynn, a bright star shining from the far away past. In this case, last call is at 7 p.m., March 10.