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SPEAKING OF TALLULAH ...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a voice with an accent that falls somewhere between the American heartland and London's West End. Or is it the Deep South and sunny Spain?

In an era when cigarettes are social poison, this voice is unadulterated nicotine -- a sound so low and sultry, it could singe the phone wires. And then there's the vocabulary. "Extraordinarily" pops up more than once. So does "exhilarating." No understatement here, thank you.

The voice is so distinctive it couldn't belong to anyone but Kathleen Turner -- unless, of course, it belonged to Tallulah Bankhead.

"We have very similar vocal qualities," says Turner, who over the years has been compared to Bankhead by everyone from John Waters to the New York Times and is now portraying her in a one-woman show, "Tallulah." "I find it more similar than people might think -- not just the tone or timbre, but also she had a great facility for languages."

Turner's voice is wafting over the phone from Pittsburgh ("We call it glorious, glamorous Pittsburgh"), the third stop in the play's 11-city pre-Broadway tour. The show opens Tuesday at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.

Two stars

Turner and the late Tallulah have more in common than their voices. Both had parents in government service. Bankhead's father was speaker of the House; Turner's father was a career diplomat, who moved his family from Missouri, where Kathleen was born, to Canada, Cuba, Venezuela and England (which explains why her accent is all over the map).

And, of course, both women courted and earned the term "star."

Born in Huntsville, Ala., in 1903, Bankhead displayed a formidable ambition to become an actress even as a teen-ager. When Picture-Play magazine awarded her a movie contract at age 15, her grandfather countered her father's resistance by saying, "Let her go on the stage. She's not worth a damn for anything but acting" (in the words of her ghostwritten 1952 autobiography).

That autobiography is titled simply "Tallulah" -- a one-word appellation that became instantly recognizable around the world. Although she cultivated a reputation for hard drinking and hard living, Bankhead was also a hard worker. She starred in a score of movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944), and more than four dozen plays, including Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Bankhead was known for being outrageously outspoken, and though Turner keeps her conversation well within the bounds of propriety, in an interview she talks openly about everything from embarrassing moments on stage to her student days at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.

The 1977 UMBC grad was in her mid-20s when she got her big break -- an unknown cast as the femme fatale in Law-rence Kasdan's "Body Heat" (1981). She probably could have played a similar role the rest of her life. Instead, she returned to Washington, where her family had once lived, and played Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Arena Stage. Since then, she has chosen roles that demonstrate range -- from adventure ("Romancing the Stone") to comedy ("Serial Mom") to self-parody ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"). Yet like the stars of the past, Turner is always, to some extent, playing herself.

She is continuing to expand her range with Sandra Ryan Heyward's play, "Tallulah" -- Turner's first one-woman show. "It's extraordinarily exhilarating to have this whole audience only focused on you, exciting and thrilling and satisfying," she says, barely pausing as she adds: "It's very frightening in that if you don't stay totally focused and you lose your place, there's this wave of panic because there's no one there to help you out. You can't cast a desperate look at your co-star."

She did lose her place almost two years ago when the show made its American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. "I was shaken. I had to say, 'Excuse me, please. I have to check on something,' " she recalls. Then she dashed into the wings to consult the stage manager.

"I had a good friend there that night, Geraldine Chaplin. It was the first preview. She said, 'Oh, honey, you were so vulnerable. It was so honest. I think you should keep it.' I said, 'No way.' "

"Tallulah" takes place at Bankhead's home in Bedford Village, N.Y., where she is giving a fund-raiser for the 1948 campaign for incumbent President Harry S. Truman. As Turner sees it, her character is not strictly alone in the play. "[The playwright] treats the audience as if they're invited guests, using the audience as characters in her play. So I'm always talking to them. Sometimes they talk back, so a little ad lib is in order."

This is precisely what happened last month, when "Tallulah" was in Boston. "There's a passage where I say, 'Do you think that bisexuality makes for marvelous love?' A woman yelled out, 'You bet.' I said, 'Well, honey, I agree with you.' "

No Bankhead clone

First-time Los Angeles playwright Heyward had Turner in mind for "Tallulah" almost from the beginning. "Once I started writing 'Tallulah,' I started hearing Kathleen's voice. There just wasn't any better voice for it," she says.

The one-woman format also evolved early. "Somehow Tallulah just seemed to take over the stage all by herself, and Kathleen does, she really does," says Heyward.

As right as the casting may seem, Turner, who has been involved with the show since its 1997 debut at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex, England, makes a point of explaining that she's not attempting to clone Bankhead on stage. "In no way have I ever wanted simply to impersonate Tallulah Bank-head. I wanted to create a character based on her.

"We reached a place a couple years ago where we had to decide whether we were going to do an accurate biographical piece or whether we were going to go into other issues and conflicts she had and hang the facts and figures, and that's basically the direction [Heyward] has taken," Turner says.

"I wanted to explore fame, explore celebrity," the playwright explains, "the problems and the obligations of fame. How do you walk the slim line between fame and notoriety? [Tallulah] really tiptoed between that one. She skated over such thin ice of scandal and was breathtaking in her way of doing that. She used to destroy herself and resurrect herself, like a phoenix."

Turner agrees. "It's about fame, it's about acting, it's about expectations and about failing yourself. It's about a lot more than just who she was, the day-to-day stuff," she says. "Examining the whole concept of a woman in her 40s, a star and how your life has changed is very interesting to me."

Turner's personal life differs markedly from that of flamboyant Bankhead, who bragged of having thousands of lovers -- male and female -- and described herself as "pure as the driven slush." Despite the sirens she's played on stage and screen, Turner, 46, has been married to the same man, New York real estate developer Jay Weiss, since 1984, and they have a 13-year-old daughter, Rachel Ann.

"I must confess that sometimes I find myself having difficulty admiring [Bankhead] because she's just so foolish at times with her excesses," Turner says. "She was tremendously extravagant in her drinking and drugging and sexual [life]."

Another extravagance of Bankhead's was an off-stage penchant for nudity, whether in the pool or moseying about the house. Although Turner attracted considerable press in London this summer when she did a nude scene in the stage adaptation of "The Graduate," she keeps her clothes on in "Tallulah."

One reason, as Heyward points out, is that while Turner appeared only briefly in the buff with soft backlighting in "The Graduate," "if Tallulah were going to be nude, she wouldn't be nude, she'd be buck naked."

Turner may take issue with Bank-head's lifestyle, but she has found some estimable qualities in her character. "I like her ability to pick herself up and go on. I like the honesty inherent in her, the style of the woman," she says. "I think there's a lot of guts involved in her living and mine."

Struggle with disease

Guts and perseverance are traits Turner has relied on repeatedly in her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. "It started to develop during the shooting of 'Serial Mom,' " she says, referring to Waters' 1994 movie in which she played a model wife and mother who turns homicidal at the slightest faux pas. "It started with my feet. I realized toward the end of filming that the shoes we had bought for the film were almost unbearably painful. At that point we were almost done. I thought, I'll go back to New York and check it out."

She consulted a podiatrist, who couldn't find anything wrong. Then she began having trouble with her left elbow. A sports medicine specialist who treats baseball pitchers also found nothing wrong. Finally, she was unable to turn her head.

"Nobody put this together," she says. "I was in so much pain and feeling so ill. You feel very sick all the time. You have this rampant infection. I was running a fever. I went to my regular doctor and said something is terribly wrong and he took blood for the first time and said your rheumatoid factor is through the roof."

Told she would end up in a wheelchair, Turner began a regimen of medications that left her looking bloated. This led to rumors of alcohol abuse, which she didn't deny, figuring Hollywood could deal better with that than with a chronic disease. "There's a long history in my business of people being perfectly content to hire drunks but they don't understand [illness]. It seemed to me better to keep my mouth shut."

A research doctor in Boston has been her salvation. "He got me off terrible drugs -- steroids and chemotherapy. He told me to get into a pool for as long as I could stand it every day and keep moving and strengthen my muscles," she says. "He got me into remission."

She still works out daily and is now strong enough to face the exertion of touring a one-woman show. She's especially looking forward to returning to Baltimore, where she has fond memories not only of making two movies ("Serial Mom" and "The Accidental Tourist"), but also of her undergraduate days at UMBC, to which she transferred from the Southwest Missouri State University so she could study with avant-garde director Herbert Blau.

While at UMBC, she worked behind the scenes at Baltimore's first international theater festival in 1976. "I don't remember getting any sleep at all, but it was the most exhilarating, exciting time. I've never forgotten some of the images I got from watching some of those experimental companies."

The same year, she appeared briefly in community theater, playing a dance-hall girl in a production of "Jekyll and Hyde," adapted and directed by Steve Yeager at the Vagabond Players. "Kathleen Turner is first-rate as Hyde's ill-fated slave," The Sun reported.

Back in Baltimore

"Tallulah" will be the first time Turner has been on stage in Baltimore since then, and this time she hopes audiences will appreciate another characteristic she shares with Bankhead -- the ability to laugh at herself. Bankhead had "a great sense of humor and self deprecation. It's not phoney," she says. "She makes me laugh, which is essential. If I'm not having a great time out there, you're not going to either."

Then, as if to make sure she leaves an interviewer laughing, she tells a story she picked up on tour. In Minneapolis, she received a letter from a man who had worked in summer stock with Bankhead near the end of her career.

"He was basically assigned to keep her sober, and every night she just kept getting really drunk by the end of the play, and nobody could figure this out. They searched her dressing room. It turned out ... she used to keep her makeup in bowls of ice water to keep it cool. She filled the bowls with gin, which is a martini, baby. She had her makeup resting in bowls of martinis!"

And with that, Kathleen Turner unleashes a laugh so deep and throaty, you can almost feel the phone rumble.

ON STAGE

New York is seeing triple when it comes to Tallulah Bankhead. Three shows about the late star are part of the current theater season.

"Tallulah Hallelujah!" which opened off-Broadway Oct. 10, is a three-person show co-written by and starring Tovah Feldshuh. Billed as a play with music, it takes place at a USO benefit in 1956.

"Dahling," which opened off-off-Broadway Oct. 28, is by Nan Schmid and features a cast of eight playing 55 characters. The play chronicles Bankhead's life from birth to death.

"Tallulah," written by Sandra Ryan Heyward and starring Kathleen Turner, is a one-woman show set at Bankhead's home in Westchester County, N.Y., where she is giving a fund-raiser for President Harry S. Truman's 1948 election campaign. Coming to Baltimore as part of an 11-city tryout tour, it is due to open on Broadway this spring.

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $11.50-$54

Call: 410-752-1200

TALLULAH ON BALTIMORE

Tallulah Bankhead appeared in Baltimore many times from the 1930s into the 1960s. Her opinion of the city varied widely. However, the actress, who died in 1968, evidently made her peace with Maryland, since she was buried outside of Chestertown, where her sister lived.

Here's a sample of what she had to say about Charm City:

"I think Baltimore is the most American of our cities. Baltmoreans have the happy knack of carrying on their business for the fun of it -- and that really is the only way to achieve real fullness of life. That's perhaps why the amateur theater movement there is so much more successful than the professional. It seems to me that Baltimore's professional theater has been retarded by the surfeit of social life attendant upon it. People go to the theater to have box parties and to be seen. And I don't have to tell you what that did to the Metropolitan Opera."

-- Told to a New York reporter in 1934

"I never visit any city in the United States unless I'm on tour. I have friends here, people I've met, but Baltimore to me is the place where my two greatest successes, 'The Skin of Our Teeth' and 'The Little Foxes,' opened and were panned, so maybe that's a happy omen. Not that I read reviews, I don't believe in it."

-- During a Baltimore stop in 1963, while starring in the Broadway tryout of Tennessee Williams' "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore." "Milk Train" closed in New York after five performances; it was her last Broadway show

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