There was always something outsized and mannish about Bette Davis, as if her persona — onscreen and off — were occasionally a broad imitation of a female impersonator doing her. What other mere actress could bring the cold, mercenary heartlessness of Regina Giddens to the big screen in The Little Foxes with such steely power? Just the idea of someone else presuming to that stature conjures up images of Bette's imperious sneer — and the fearsome Davis glare — in response to that challenge. So it should come as no surprise that most productions of Elizabeth Fuller's Me and Jezebel feature a man in the role of the Hollywood legend.
Twenty-eight years after Fuller welcomed Davis into her Connecticut home for dinner, then welcomed her back for an overnight stay that mushroomed into a 32-day occupation, Queen City Theatre Company brings the 1994 tell-all script to Duke Energy Theater in a version that director Glenn Griffin tells me was revised by the playwright especially for this production. Griffin observes the custom of casting a man in the Jezebel role, playing the same cross-dressing ace he played in Q.C.'s Sordid Lives and Die Mommie Die, and the wisdom of the choice quickly becomes obvious.
When Hank West goes overboard in his impression of the screen queen, we find it more hilarious than if a woman were doing it — and more of an affectionate homage. The decorous way that Davis chain smokes, clips or distends her words or reacts wide-eyed to Liz's mundane or personal revelations gets further accenting from the gargoyle makeup design by Iesha Hoffman and Jeff Capell. West also gets more comedy mileage out of Jamey Varnadore's splendid costume designs, whether it's Bette's stiletto heels or the overalls she wears to go berry picking. Over a silk blouse!
Exact reckoning is also evident in the unit set design by Tim Baxter-Ferguson and Kristian Wedolowski. Spare yet elegant, the Fuller living room is simulated without walls, using judiciously selected indoor and outdoor furnishings, a couple of suspended window frames, and a free-standing pair of French doors sturdy enough to withstand Bette's grand arrival. Conspiring with Victoria Fisher's lighting and Liz's narrative, scenery becomes unobtrusive as we fluidly move to various locations, including the berry patch, the beach, the chichi Pierre's restaurant, Liz's ratty car, and the unthinkable McDonald's, where we find more and more luscious instances of Bette being Bette.
Yes, Bette can be blunt, bitchy, bossy and catty. One of the directives Liz receives from Davis's handlers is to never bring up the name of Joan Crawford — or the vicious memoir, My Mother's Keeper, published that same year by Bette's daughter. Yet, believe it or not, there is one memorable instance of Bette Davis being reticent! Check out her majestic reaction to Liz's performance of a scene from one of Davis's films. Priceless.
West's loving caricature of Davis works here for two more reasons I haven't mentioned. To the bone, this Bette is the antithesis of any object worthy of Liz's simple and sincere worship, a source of perpetual laughter. At times, taking in Liz's adoration, her insufferable writer friend Grace who seeks to bring Bette to Christ, and the friction she causes between Liz and her husband John, West makes the iconic star seem totally alien, like an unblinking eagle brooding in a cage. She is different and unpredictable — even when she breaks out into her distinctive laughter — to the extent that she rises into the mystic realm of the unknowable.
Why not? She speaks of herself reverentially in the third person!
There were a few shaky moments in Sheila Snow Proctor's opening night performance, but these were credibly woven into Liz's overriding awe and trepidation at the privilege she has been suddenly granted after a lifetime of fandom. Liz isn't all awe and deference as she chronicles Davis's exile in Connecticut during the 1985 New York hotel strike. Navigating the minefield of hosting and communicating with Davis — anything can set off an explosion — Proctor makes the accommodating hostess more comical than you might expect, occasionally showing some backbone.
During Liz's narrative, Proctor gets the chance to dive into less adoring roles. She makes John, her husband, sound a lot like a baritone nagging wife and Grace into a wondrously effusive evangelical, exactly the right meat for Bette's talons. We also get brief glimmers of Liz's "offspring," as Bette puts it, Chris. The child's pearls aren't as memorable as the specimens he provides of Bette's parenting beliefs and practices. No, she will not stop her interminable smoking in his presence, but she does agree that she shouldn't swear in front of the lad. She keeps her firm resolution to stop until the next word that comes out of her mouth.
When her script premiered Off Broadway 19 years ago, Fuller played herself. So it's quite possible that one of the revisions in the 2013 version includes a fuller reaction to the playwright's impromptu acting audition. If so, some of Bette's best advice is in there for the first time, along with one of the warmest moments of the evening. Either way, Me and Jezebel will serve as a hugely entertaining reminder for all who have grown up with Bette Davis's films and an enticing introduction and invitation for those who haven't.