"Billie is probably my favorite character I've ever played," says Santa Rosa–born actress Heather Gordon, describing Billie Dawn, the iconic showgirl-sex-object she portrays in Cinnabar Theater's production of Born Yesterday, the classic 1946 stage comedy by Garson Kanin. "They don't write a lot of great female characters like this anymore," adds Gordon.
From where Gordon sits backstage at Cinnabar, before tonight's rehearsal, the raucous sounds of electric saws and pounding hammers can be heard seeping in from the stage area, where the elaborate multilevel set is being built. All that noise forms a bustling soundtrack to our conversation, as Gordon talks about why she's returned to Sonoma County, taking a break from a busy career as a film and television actress to play a part at a small theater in Petaluma.
"There's just something about Billie that I identify with," says Gordon, who first played the part six years ago at College of Marin and immediately fell in love with the charming but undereducated Billie, longtime mistress of thuggish businessman Brock (played by Gary Grossman). Eager to make an impression in Washington, D.C., Brock calls upon the well-spoken newspaper reporter Paul (Paul Huberty) to give Billie a few lessons in how to behave in educated society, lessons that result in Billie's unexpected rise in consciousness, which eventually challenges everybody's assumptions about who she is, including her own.
"A woman who looks a certain way gets treated a certain way," Gordon observes. "People put labels on her. There's something so innocent and pure about Billie, and yet she's got this fight and this hunger. Her journey is so fun to play."
Gordon, who may identify with Billie yet is anything but undereducated, earned her masters degree at Harvard, where she studied at the American Repertory Theater, afterward journeying to Russia for a stint at the Moscow Art Theater. Gordon next landed an agent, and has been busy working her way upward in Hollywood ever since.
Last year, Gordon was featured in the award-winning independent film Seducing Charlie Barker. She's filmed commercial and television pilots and has made several films, including the upcoming comedy December Dilemma with Sean Astin and Richard Benjamin, and the animated film Skyforce. While in town for Born Yesterday, she's shooting the independent comedy Tony Trans Am.
The last time Gordon appeared onstage in the North Bay was four years ago in Sixth Street Playhouse's production of Robert Reich's political satire Public Exposure. Her co-star in that show was Sheri Lee Miller, who now directs her in Born Yesterday.
"When Sheri reached out to me," Gordon says, "asking me to consider playing this role in this production, it just tugged at my heart, because I love this show so much, and I love her. As much as I enjoy doing on-camera work, there's nothing like theater."
Gordon feels that the experiences she's had over the last several years are giving her plenty of material to draw upon as she returns to the role of Billie Dawn.
"At times, I've felt very much like Billie feels, a fish out of water," she admits. "Living on the East Coast, going to Harvard then to Russia—it was very overwhelming. I'd never lived out of the Bay Area, and suddenly I was thrown into this whole other world. L.A.'s been a cakewalk compared to all of that!
"I've learned some of what Billie learns," she adds. "Life is full of surprises and challenges, but you grow, you adapt, and you learn. You get savvy pretty quick, or you're done. That's what Billie does. She's savvy. She's a survivor. I think we both are."
'Born Yesterday' runs Friday–Sunday, May 25 through June 10, at Cinnabar Theater. 3333 N. Petaluma Blvd., Petaluma. Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. $15–$25. 707.763.8920.