The Age of Tallulah

Indeed better actresses than Tallulah Bankhead have seen their careers dry up because playwrights and screenwriters don't create characters for them. Even Shakespeare, who gave us young lovers aplenty and middle-aged kings, wasn't much interested in the mothers of those lovers or the queens who ruled with those kings.

Having Kathleen Turner utter Tallulah's eulogy for her lost youth only crystallizes this issue. Unlike Bankhead, of course, Turner is a star and a great actress. With her crocodile grin and girlish demeanor, Turner strongly calls to mind another great star, Lauren Bacall. This resemblance might be forgettable if it weren't for the fact that Bacall is a textbook example of a talented actress for whom there were no parts once she reached midlife.

Will the same fate befall Turner? Could the woman who gave voice to sexpot Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit disappear for the next 20 years, only to emerge playing the sort of senior-citizen roles Bacall gets now? (The show's program notes report that Turner has three film projects in the pipeline.) Given the paltry imagination of the typical Hollywood casting director, such a career hiatus seems entirely possible, even imminent.

That's a shame because Turner is fascinating. She waltzes from the liquor cart to the dumbwaiter to the radio to the bed like an exceedingly articulate prom date. (Loren Sherman's set is full of oversize oak furniture, the better to match the scale of its star inhabitant.) Turner is well directed by Michael Lessac, who even stages one scene in which the actress -- as Tallulah addresses a crowd, Evita-style, out her bedroom window -- performs with her back to the house. Turner, it seems, is magnificent from any angle.

If Tallulah isn't absolutely fabulous, however, it's because Turner's performance, while technically wonderful and engaging, is somewhat emotionally reined in. She's playing a character who is always on, always performing, yet Turner never shows us any of Bankhead's unguarded moments. Even a potentially chilling scene in which Tallulah sings a lullaby over the phone to a despondent Tennessee Williams is poignant rather than heartbreaking. She keeps us slightly removed from the character. In Turner's portrayal of her, Tallulah is indeed larger than life. Occasionally, though, we long for her to be just a little bit life-size.

Tallulah.
Written by Sandra Ryan Heyward. Directed by Michael Lessac. Starring Kathleen Turner. Through January 31. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami, 305-442-2662.

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