The legendary Tallulah Bankhead is celebrated in playwright Frank Donnelly's Queen of Clubs, receiving a world premiere at the Church Street Theatre in Washington, D.C. Produced by MAS Productions, the show runs June 14 to July 23, with the press opening the weekend of June 16.
[Editor's Note (7/19/00): The production closed two weeks early, on July 9.]
Jeff Keenan directs Paula Gruskewicz as the flamboyant Bankhead, who performed on stage, screen, radio and television. An American, born and raised in the South, she was one of the most celebrated actresses of the 1920s on London's West End. On Broadway, she was acclaimed for such roles as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1939), Sabina in Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and Amanda Prynne in Noel Coward's Private Lives (1946-50).
Queen of Clubs finds Bankhead at a less glorious time in her career. The play is set on the eve of her ill-fated stage comeback, the opening night of the 1956 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Awaiting her entrance as Blanche DuBois, Bankhead is haunted by a monstrous, mocking figure of her own creation -- a drag queen who has made a career out of impersonating her. While recollecting her past glories and failures, Bankhead fears an uncertain future.
Bankhead's interpretation of Blanche was controversial. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson said of her performance at City Center: "Tallulah Bankhead and Blanche duBois are not evenly matched...Last night the audience seemed to be familiar with all her (Bankhead's) mannerisms, and was disposed to regard Blanche's tussle with the fates as pretty funny...Life is still too overwhelming for poor Blanche. In this case, it is the natural gusto of Tallulah Bankhead that crushes her." Williams was moved to write a lengthy letter to the New York Times "Drama Mailbag," in which he stated "...Contrary to rumor, I never stated publicly, to my sober recollection that she (Bankhead) had ruined my play. What I said was phrased in barroom lingo. I was talking to myself, not to all who would listen, although certainly into my cups."
To which Bankhead responded: "I have read the communiqué of Tennessee Williams in the Times of last Sunday in which he undertook to sober up. Mr. Williams' talents as a playwright are considerable, but in his manifesto he forever scuttled the ancient legend, in vino veritas."
The cast for Queen of Clubs includes Christopher Brophy as Tennessee Williams, Frank Robinson, Jr. as Noel Coward, Timmy Ray James as Tallulah's father, and Lynn Steinmetz as Tallulah's confidante, Estelle Winwood.
The design team includes Lou Stancari (Set), Dan Covey (Lighting), Mark K. Anduss (Sound), and Timm Burrow (Costumes).
Bankhead has certainly sparked theatrical interest of late, including a couple of different solos for Tovah Feldshuh, and a Broadway-bound vehicle for Kathleen Turner, scripted by Sandra Ryan Heyward.
The Church Street Theatre is located at 1742 Church Street, N.W. Tickets are $30, and may be purchased online at boxofficetickets.com or by calling or faxing 1-800-494-TIXS.
-- by Barbara Gross