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THEATER REVIEW Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2018-06-06

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Playwright: Jessica Sherr

At: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $26-36; AthenaeumTheatre.org; 773-935-6875. Runs through: June 17

Jessica Sherr is a one-woman revolution.

Her original show Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies began as an acting-class exercise in Sherr's home base of New York City. After acclaimed runs off-Broadway, in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sherr brought Bette to the Athenaeum in June 2017 and was commissioned by the theater to further develop the solo performance. One year later, Sherr makes a triumphant return to Chicago with an expanded 90-minute love letter to the tough, complex and truly unforgettable star of stage and screen.

Sherr wrote and directed the production, as well as coordinating impressive lighting and sound clips and sourcing gorgeous, vibrant evening gowns and peignoirs worthy of a cinematic icon. The one-act begins and ends on the evening of the 1939 Academy Awards, which Davis has stormed out of with the knowledge ( thanks to a leak from the Los Angeles Times ) that Vivien Leigh has beaten her for Best Actress. Davis chats on the telephone with her mother, Ruthie, close friend Olivia de Havilland ( who won't stop crying ) and co-star Humphrey Bogart while running lines for the next morning's shoot and taking the audience through her life and career, one sassy monologue at a time. Once a small-town girl doing summer stock in Lowell, Massachusetts, Davis gradually ascends to Broadway thanks to the encouragement of Ruthie, her smart and driven single mother in a time when such families were incredibly rare. Davis desires nothing more than a life on stage, but when a Hollywood talent scout invites her to meet a big-time producer, everything changes.

From Bette's early days in the studio system ( when actresses were locked into contracts that resembled indentured servitude ) to All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Sherr covers it all, using that fateful Oscar night as bookends. Also, Sherr pulls no punches: As talented and stunning as Davis was, she was also prickly, demanding and forever dissatisfied with La La Land, escaping to her beloved East Coast whenever she could.

Although Davis and her mother remained incredibly close until Ruthie's death, the actress was far from a good mother to her own daughter, B.D., resulting in a lifelong estrangement. But as Sherr deftly demonstrates—with a brilliant mastery of Bette's voice, style and mannerisms—there's a lot to like and admire about an actress who didn't fit the Hollywood mold ( she was petite and gravelly among a cadre of long-legged beauties ), and perpetually resisted playing the pretty girl, in favor of darker, grittier roles.

In Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies, Sherr has created something funny, tragic and completely unforgettable. Don't miss this tribute to Old Hollywood—warts and all—during its short but sweet Chicago run.


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