Camilla Carr’s All About Bette is a one-woman show that turns on the meticulous, focused, inspired performance of Morgana Shaw. Beginning with Bette Davis in her twilight years, she arrives with silver-white hair, moving a bit slowly, but still as fierce as ever. She starts by mentioning that Edward Albee only granted permission to Warner Brothers for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because he was promised that she and James Mason would play Martha and George. Had this come through, her famous “What a dump.” line would have featured Bette Davis doing Bette Davis. This delicious irony launches Ms. Davis into an avid, detailed, beguiling succession of anecdotes, punched up with juicy gossip and grand moments, such as a few bars from her famous song, “A Letter to Daddy” from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Roughly halfway through the show, there’s a riveting sequence of transformation. She removes the wig to reveal a damp mop of brunette hair, which she brushes out to reverse time by about 30 years.
Ms. Davis shares personal struggles such as the painful ordeal with two of her daughters, one angry and alienated, the other emotionally and cognitively impaired. She discusses sexual and romantic connections with William Wyler, Howard Hughes, Gary Merrill and George Brent among others. She was married five times and was notorious for her frankness and lack of pretension, which makes All About Bette so warm, appealing and infinitely pleasurable. How can we help but admire an actress who’s willing to play the cold, cynical villains from such landmark films as, Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Letter and The Little Foxes? She was beautiful, if not glamorous, but she made the most of her talent, and history by fighting a studio system that reduced its stars to commodities. Throughout this intoxicating monologue, we are charmed by her lack of vanity and refusal to to wrap herself in adulation.
When a playwright sets out to forge a bio-drama, it’s hard to avoid ending up with a prolonged valentine and/or tribute that capitalizes exclusively on fan favorites. When Holland Taylor wrote her drama of Ann Richards, the portrait we got was varied and thorough, probably because her personal history was not common knowledge. While All About Bette may not include as many revelations as we might like, we get a strong sense of who Ms. Davis was. Her strengths and tragedies and moments of genuine kindness. It’s easy to embrace her refusal to be mistaken for a saint, and put simply, the desire to be recognized exclusively for her astonishing craft and talent. Morgana Shaw pulls off the daunting, Herculean task of fleshing out a legendary, Titanic star (who brought such depth and delight to us) with confidence and poise. She invites us into a realm of intense joie de vivre and the company of a lady who brought electricity to a world that’s diminished by her passing.
Straight Entertainment presents All About Bette: An Interlude with Bette Davis, playing August 18th-26, 2017. Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232. www.aneveningwithbettedavis.com.