Hank West may have been destined to play Bette Davis. He’s the best local actor doing drag roles in serious shows. He once wrote her a fan latter and got one back, which prompted a string of birthday greetings and get-well cards from West to his favorite actress.
So seeing him in “Me and Jezebel,” owlish eyes staring indignantly or head tossed back to throw off one of Davis’ barking laughs, seems utterly natural. Sheila Snow Proctor delivers an equally assured performance as Elizabeth Fuller, a Connecticut writer whose guest room Davis occupied for a month in the summer of 1985. Fuller turned that experience into the slight play titled “Me & Jezebel,” which closes Queen City Theatre Company’s season at Spirit Square.
Davis, who’d had dinner at the Fuller home with a mutual friend, returned soon thereafter in search of a quiet place to work on a book. (An alleged strike of hotel workers had driven her out of New York.) She was supposedly going to stay a few days but ended up hanging about for weeks, until Fuller’s husband threatened to go.
Act 1 consists of the first two weeks of Davis’ stay, when she awes Fuller, charms her recalcitrant pre-schooler and irritates that unseen husband. (Fuller speaks the male characters’ lines.) In Act 2, Fuller’s relationship with Davis deepens – in her own mind, anyhow – and the author learns to be more assertive and self-reliant.
On one level, the play must be taken as fantasy. By 1985, the real Davis had only partially recovered from multiple strokes that left her speech slurred and her movements awkward. (She died, a frail woman of 81, four years later.) West presents us with the iconic Davis we knew from her movies in the 1960s, proud and catty and in full command of her faculties.
This is an older but recognizable version of the Davis Fuller idolized as a girl, when she watched the Oscar-winning performance in “Jezebel” with her equally fanatic grandma. As the play goes on, Davis becomes a kind of surrogate grandma for the author, who risks being ridiculous in a long scene on the couch in front of her TV. To her credit, Fuller often takes the chance that we’ll find her silly: A session with a Ouija board, which starts those Bette Davis eyes rolling as Fuller tries to contact Davis’ dead mother, has to make us smile.
I’d guess Fuller wrote this piece to chart a voyage toward self-awareness. But what I took away, especially from West’s apt performance and Glenn T. Griffin’s direction, was something rather different.
Fuller kowtows to Davis’ demands, never asking repayment for a new mattress or long-distance calls to Europe. Though she eventually acquires some backbone and a bit of Davis’ respect, she mostly seems like a schoolgirl viewing her heroine as a great woman and not a rude, egocentric crank. (I expect Davis was both by that point in life.) The play thus becomes a cautionary tale about mooning over celebrities, who are hardly ever what the infatuated public imagines.
Be sure to listen carefully to the bizarre mix tape played before both acts. Davis talk-sings numbers from her movies, including the derangedly sweet “I’m Writing a Letter to Daddy” from her last masterwork, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Her voice goes flat and sharp and approximates pitches, but there’s something compelling going on. It would be pretty hard to kick the owner of that voice out of your house, if she didn’t want to leave.