It's probably a common fantasy among those who've lost a parent: while sorting through keepsakes, you discover a box of mementos that unlocks the mysteries of who they were and why they acted as they did. For Antony Penrose, this was no fantasy, and the box of letters and photos he discovered in the attic of his family's house were the memento mori of a most remarkable life: that of his mother, Lee Miller, fashion model, combat photographer and muse of the Surrealist movement. This intimate glimpse into her life and work has been dramatized as Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend, a "reading for five voices" at the Chance Theater with Miller's grandniece, Chance co-founder Erika Ceporius Miller, in the title role.
In 1929, Miller, already a successful fashion model, became the student and lover of photographer Man Ray (Ventura Alvarez). She was the subject of some of his most memorable work, but she grew tired of his incessant jealousy and left him to marry a prosperous Egyptian, whom she later left for English artist Roland Penrose (Sean Hannaway). She joined Penrose in England just in time for the Blitz, where she tried to follow the Surrealist creed by seeking wonder in the images of destruction. But she soon became restless and joined Life magazine photographer David Scherman (Warren Draper) in Europe as a war correspondent for Vogue. Her experiences, particularly the discovery of Dachau and the pervasive corruption she found after the war, caused her to emotionally withdraw, turning her into the difficult, hard-drinking woman Antony Penrose (John Bolen) knew as his mother.
Despite some occasional awkwardness in the frame device and an uncomfortable awareness of actors standing in the dark, waiting for their turn to speak, director Oanh Nguyen's spare, effective staging keeps us focused on the vital elements: the history, the personalities, the words and, most especially, the unforgettable photos projected onscreen center stage that document a remarkable life. Taken as a whole, Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend is more than just a biography of notable talent or even a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the Surrealists: it's a love letter to a difficult mother, a posthumous accommodation with a powerfully free spirit.
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Lee Miller: The Angel and the Fiend at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through May 18. $13-$15.