In the winter of 1983, when "A Woman of Independent Means" first opened in the small Back Alley Theater in Van Nuys, Barbara Rush thought it was "a funny little project" without much of a future.
Boy, was she wrong. The one-woman show, written by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey and based on her celebrated novel of the same name, drew luminous reviews and became a hit almost immediately. Times drama critic Dan Sullivan, for one, said it provided "an evening with a character you won't forget."
It was, in Rush's own words, a revelation.
"I really didn't think it had much potential . . . not at all," said the articulate actress. "I was only doing it one night a week in this little Valley theater and just having some fun with it. Then I saw how everyone loved it, and I was amazed."
But Rush, 60, is no longer surprised by the success of the drama, which, except for a brief, disastrous Broadway run in 1984, has been produced in several U.S. cities and in Canada. Just coming off a three-week run in Dallas, "A Woman of Independent Means" will be at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton tonight for a single, sold-out performance.
The movie starlet of the 1950s--Rush was at various times under contract to Paramount, Universal and Fox studios--believes the play's appeal lies in its focus on "familial relationships" and, of course, the "obstinate, stubborn, flawed and rather interesting" character of Bess Garner Steed, who is at its center.
Hailey's adaptation of her best-selling epistolary book follows Steed, a well-heeled Texas matron, from her girlish teens to infirm old age. Manipulative and brazen, but also courageous and genuine, Steed survives tragedy and enjoys triumphs, as Rush, without benefit of makeup, takes her through more than a half-century.
"I think those who like this play are people who have a real sense of the family experience, people who really appreciate life from the joys of birth to the grief of death and (who) have strong personal relationships," Rush said. "So much of it is about having strong ties to the home and loved ones. . . . It's not for people who like the bizarre (in theater)."
Rush concedes that some audiences are turned off by the Steed character just because of her flaws. It's Steed's relative insignificance and questionable personality that prompted New York critics to wonder why a one-person play had been written about such a woman. In his scalding review, Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote that the play is "as mean, small and nasty as its protagonist."
Rush believes that overproduction was a factor in the play's failure on Broadway.
"Our fault was in not doing it exactly how it had been done (in Los Angeles)," she said. "We put in walls and backdrops and scenery, unlike how it was early on, when it was much sparer. . . . It was a crucial mistake."
But she also thinks that part of the problem is that some people expect one-person shows to focus on a wholly noble character. "They think they'll see someone heroic or famous, like Julie (Harris) playing Emily Dickinson" in the "The Belle of Amherst."
Instead, audiences are confronted by "someone very willful and very spoiled and not famous at all."
It didn't take Rush long to warm up to Steed. She saw her as an early feminist, a woman who did what she wanted, despite society's restraints. In that way, Rush says, she is a good role model for women.
Although she came to cherish the play, Rush said she initially approached the project with misgivings. "A Woman" was her first one-woman show, so the notion of being on-stage alone, night after night, was daunting.
After overcoming the initial nerves, Rush found another problem: how to keep the drama and her performance fresh. The play, since it is primarily composed of Rush reading Steed's letters to the audience while in character, has a built-in solution. Rush changes "A Woman" every now and then by removing some letter scenes and replacing them with other letter-anecdotes from the novel.
With the ongoing changes, it's predictable that Rush and Hailey have become close. Rush initially became involved with her when performing in "Father's Day" in 1973, first on the road and then at the Huntington Hartford Theater. She developed a friendship with Hailey and her husband, Oliver, who wrote the play. So when "A Woman" was adapted for the stage, Hailey looked to Rush.
Rush said she'll continue to do "A Woman of Independent Means," but on a limited basis--maybe only one-night stands and certainly no long runs. Also, she wouldn't mind seeing another actress tackle the role:
"Not at all. You have to keep these things open. Anyway, I think it might be fun to see what someone else would do with it."
Barbara Rush in "A Woman of Independent Means" by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey will play tonight at 8 p.m. at the Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave. in Fullerton. Tickets: $10-$15. Information: (714) 773-3371. SOLD OUT.