SAN DIEGO — Anyone who has ever tried to single-handedly command the attention of a large group should fully appreciate that the compelling one-person dramatic show can be the actor's ultimate challenge.
It is also a venture that draws victims like moths to the flame. And for good reason. The stakes are high. It can bore utterly or, when done right, can bring an audience into a subject's life with a familiarity that is nothing short of marvelous. Henry Fonda made a thrilling Clarence Darrow, Julie Harris a magical Emily Dickinson, Hal Holbrook an irrepressible Mark Twain.
Which brings us to Barbara Rush in Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's one-woman show, "A Woman of Independent Means," playing at the Deane Theatre through June 14.
So, what is the fictional Elizabeth Steed Garner doing in the decidedly real and august company of Darrow, Dickinson and Twain? Just what this society matron does so well in Hailey's best-selling novel of the same name: being cowed by absolutely no one, with a vitality that leaps off the printed page.
In a full-blown two hours with intermission--an unusual length for a one-person show--Rush takes her character from giddy girlhood to a brittle-boned 84. She gives a tour de force performance that surprises given the vapidity of roles relegated to her by Hollywood: from a regular on the series "Peyton Place" to a variety of dizzy females in films like "Come Blow Your Horn" and "Robin and the Seven Hoods."
Part of her strength undoubtedly comes from the craft accrued by having toured with this show off and on for three years. But the lion's share of the credit must go to the extreme depth of feeling she invests in Hailey's sensitive and faithful adaptation of her book.
The result is an acquaintance well worth making.
On the surface, Elizabeth Steed Garner seems one of the most unlikely of heroines. She does not struggle upward from poverty, she has no profession or calling, and while she marries and has children, she can hardly be described as selflessly devoted.
What she does is slightly more unusual. With a great deal of thought and a great deal of will, she learns to direct her own life. Born in the late 19th Century, she becomes in the early 20th that most unusual of creatures, a person who sees herself not through the eyes of others, but through her own, relying upon her own force of character to provide her pleasures and weather her sorrows.
Sometimes her determination to control her life spills over to a desire to control the lives of others. The price in such cases is high: the ultimate estrangement of her son and daughter. But when the time comes to pay what she owes, she judges herself honestly and pays in full with dignity, if also with great pain.
Appropriately for such a self-conscious woman, both the book and the play are conceived as a series of letters from Garner to the various people in her life. Rush begins with Garner at 17, reading letters from a scrapbook that date back to age 9 when she is cajoling her husband-to-be to come over and see her Christmas presents. "I got everything I asked for," she says tellingly. "But I always do."
A few moments later she is up to date and prancing in a long flowing dress with a big pink sash, talking with such directness to the people she is writing to that one can almost see them in her eyes.
The props on Roy Christopher's opulently appointed set at first suggest a straightforward, elegant sitting room. But soon it becomes clear that under Norman Cohen's masterful direction, each item is more than it seems in the present.
At the moment when Rush is describing her trip to Vienna, she takes in a spoonful of some luscious dessert on the mantelpiece, and there is no doubt that she is with the utmost of pleasure eating in Vienna. When she writes later about the handsome man sitting next to her on a deck chair, she puts her feet up on her old trunk, throws a blanket over her legs and is in her deck chair giving him flirtatious looks even as she tells about the meeting.
And in one of many touching moments, when she inclines softly over her chaise lounge, it is clear that she is offering her young ailing daughter a doll in her hospital bed from the "Cloud Fairy," a sprite she creates as a way of letting her child know "there were other worlds open to her if this one were suddenly closed."
Garland Riddle's lovely costumes dress Rush's fluid movements through time and space. There are the lacy parasols and bountifully festooned hats for the youthful first act, the lavender, jewelry and furs for the ripening second. Without a break in the conversation, Rush glides briefly behind a dressing screen and emerges at one point pregnant, at others transformed with a new scarf, skirt or cape.
Pamela Rank's lighting modulates the action nicely as does the incidental music by Henry Mancini. While the sound by Jon Gottlieb sometimes verges on the hokey--surely "The Star Spangled Banner" could have been left to the imagination--it often adds that extra bit of presence that makes this one-person show seem at times downright populous.
It has been written that Hailey based the story on her own maternal grandmother who, like Garner, wrote more letters to family and friends than ever were answered. This letter of homage is a lovely one to send her in return. "A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS"
By Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. Director, Norman Cohen. Incidental music, Henry Mancini. Scenery, Roy Christopher. Lighting, Pamela Rank. Costumes, Garland Riddle. Sound, Jon Gottlieb. Stage manager, Carleton Scott Alsop. With Barbara Rush. At 8 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2. Closes June 14. At the Deane Theatre, 444 4th Ave., San Diego.