Mae West was all woman," says actress Liz Jahren. "She wasn't afraid to be strong, to be sexy, to speak her mind and tell it like it is—or was. She was a very strong voice at a time when women, and a lot of men, really needed to see that in a woman."
Mae West, who died 30 years ago this year, returns to life courtesy of Jahren (Always Patsy Cline, On the Verge, Well) and the Sixth Street Playhouse, where Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde opens this weekend. The three-actor play, originally starring its author, was nominated for a Tony award for best play, and also earned acting nominations for all of its performers, one of the very few times in Broadway history that a show's entire cast was nominated.
In this production, directed by Tara Blau, Jahren is joined by Jeff Coté and Paul Huberty. Uniquely structured, the play begins with two hardcore Mae West fans, Jo and Charlie (Jahren and Coté), meeting at West's grave and forming a bond over their mutual appreciation for the legendary actress, playwright and sex symbol. Soon, their budding friendship is interwoven with scenes from West's life, with Jahren shimmying in and out of the role of West, and Coté becoming West's lifelong manager-and-more James Timony, among other characters.
"It's not easy to describe, the way this show is put together," Jahren laughs. "It's about these two characters, these people who loved Mae West, and it follows their relationship as they talk about her—but then it's also about Mae West and what happened to her as she moved from Broadway to Hollywood. It's a tribute to her, but it's also really honest."
For Jahren, the opportunity to portray a character as well known as West—that face, that voice—has not just been challenging as an actress, it's made her think about West's irresistible power as a sex symbol and what that meant for the woman of her day.
"She was fearless," Jahren says. "She was so open-minded, in terms of the people she was friends with and the things she saw as wrong, as prejudiced. She stood up for what she believed in, in ways that seem incredible in light of the censorship and intolerance that were so common when she was first starting out."
Jahren has also been thinking a lot about West's amazing ability to not just be sexy—usually through always acting as if she knew she was sexy, even in her 70s—but to make her co-stars seem sexier too, no matter who they were or what they looked like. After she appeared in the 1940 classic My Little Chickadee, it can perhaps be said that Mae West was the only woman in Hollywood who could even make W. C. Fields seem sexy.
"She just loved men, and it was contagious," Jahren says, "and sometimes that meant that, the more man there was, the more sexy she seemed to think he was. 'Wow, would you look at you—a man!'"
As West, Jahren gets to deliver some of the most famous lines ever uttered—"Why don't you come up some time and see me?"—and learning to speak them in West's instantly identifiable voice has been more of a test than she expected.
"The trick is, I play West at all of these different ages," she explains. "She starts out as this young actress, and by the end, I'm playing her in her 70s, when she didn't have much of a voice left. She was all breath and no power. So I've been watching a lot of Mae West, learning how to do that voice at different times in her life."
One would assume that after all of her preparation, Jahren has come to identify with and more deeply appreciate the power of Mae West.
"How can I not?" she laughs again. "Mae West was, and still is, a truly original American character. She inspires people to this day.
I think that audiences, after they see this show, are going to get a pretty good sense of exactly why she had such an effect on so many people."
'Dirty Blonde' runs Thursday&–Sunday, Feb. 26 through March 21, at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $18&–$28. 707.523.4185.
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