Washington — Actress Eugenia Rawls, whose one-woman stage shows run the gamut from Tallulah Bankhead to labor leader "Mother Jones," tells a story that sums up, for her, what performing is about.
She says her small granddaughter, Brett, was making her stage debut in a school play in which she'd snagged the role of a chipmunk. Halfway through her performance, the basket she was carrying tipped over and everything fell out. "But Genie," she reassured her grandmother later, "I stayed in character."
The story delights Eugenia Rawls, who went on stage at age four in a home-town (Dublin, Georgia) production of "Madame Butterfly." She has been at it ever since, with a brief interruption for growing up. From her Broadway debut as a schoolgirl in Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," then Hellman's "The Little Foxes," she went on to a series of Broadway plums: "The Great Sebastians" with the Lunts, Noel Coward's "Private Lives," Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie."
Currently, she is touring with her own one-woman show, "Women of the West," the third in a series which includes "Tallulah: a Memory," and "Affectionately Yours, Fanny Kemble," about the great Anglo-American actress of the 19th century.
Tallulah is of course the legendary Tallulah Bankhead, the Alabama actress with the hickory-smoked voice, smoldering eyes, and outrageous talent. She and Miss Rawls became lifetime friends in the early '30s when Eugenia, up from Georgia and new on Broadway, won the role of Tallulah's daughter in "The Little Foxes." At the time, Miss Bankhead remarked that Eugenia looked enough like her to actually be her own daughter.
We were sitting in her room at the Watergate Hotel where Miss Rawls had ordered a light lunch in advance. On the phone the day before she had asked in her husky voice what this reporter would prefer and had been told that anything you didn't have to cut up would be fine: it is difficult to cut and interview. So we were scarfing up cheese and herb omelets as Miss Rawls shared some of her stories about the flamboyant Tallu.
First, as a curtain-raiser, she told one about a certain night at the University of North Carolina, where she was studying drama as a special student: She had just gone out on a date with a young man who introduced her to his best friend, a redheaded law student named Donald Seawell. "How do you do? I'm going to marry you," said Seawell, upstaging her temporarily. Eight years later he did. But not before this characteristically-Bankhead story:
Miss Rawls remembers that after his proposing for eight years, shem finally asked Donald Seawell to marry her during the middle of the national tour of "The Little Foxes." They were in San Francisco. "Tallulah was very interested in the young men who came to see me. Wanted to know everything about them." Miss Rawls drops her voice a couple of octaves to Tallulah's low growl, asking about this Donald Seawell, "'Who's his father, who's his father?' I said, 'Well, his father was Attorney General of North Carolina and is now a Supreme Court Justice.' Miss Bankhead, whose father was a US Senator, said, 'Ah ha! Well, bring him in to meet me after the show.' I said to him, 'Tallulah wants to meet you.' He said, 'Fine.'"
After the show, she remembers, "We walked into Tallulah's dressing room. And there sat Tallulah at her makeup table, charming, casual, and naked. . . . She then proceeded to ask Donald all about himself, his family, and what his intentions toward me were."
She laughs at the memory of it, this small, hazel-eyed woman with a piquant face and hair the color of ginger ale. She is wearing rehearsal clothes -- a beige silk shirt with black pin dots, beige pants, brown loafers and white socks.
Her rehearsal that afternoon is at the National Portrait Gallery where she'll do two performances of "Women of the West" the next day. On the way out she'll stop to pick up her tote bag -- a green and tan Denver Post promo bag. For Donald Seawell, after a career as a lawyer and Broadway producer, eventually became publisher of the Denver Post. They have two children, Eugenia Ashley Brooke Seawall Speidel (mother of Brett, the former chipmunk) and Donald Brockman Seawell (named for Tallulah's family). Tallulah was godmother to both children as they were growing up.
Their daughter, known as Brooke, is doing some modeling in Washington; sone Brockman has become an actor, and will appear with his mother, Eugenia Rawls, in Tennessee Williams's "The Glass Menagerie" at a University of Alabama production next fall. She will pay the mother, Amanda, and he will play the son, Tom.
Miss Rawls says wistfully of that tragic play: "I have yet to play an Amanda that Tom doesn't begin to hate about the second week in rehearsal. It's very strange. It happens every time. . . . We'll both have to keep our cool." The part, which she first played on Broadway, "is like breathing to me," she says. As with the roles of Fanny Kemble and Tallulah, "there's a lot of me in them."
Is there one quality that all the women she's portraying currently in her one-woman shows have, the "Women of the West," "Fanny," and "Tallulah"? "Yes. Stamina. 'They'd keep goin', they'd press on,' in the immortal words of Tallulah. They all have very much the same traits: courage, the ability to survive. No self-pity."
There is certainly all of that in her deft, moving characterizations of the pioneer women of the West: Mother Jones, the white-haired, grandmotherly-looking labor leader who was thrown in jail for trying to aid striking Colorado coal miners and "fought sewer rats with a broken beer bottle for 26 days in that black hole," as she wrote in her letters. Or pioneer wife Sarah Royce, feeling "like Hagar in the wilderness" as she watched her children dying of thirst in the trek across the desert to Colorado by ox-drawn wagon. As Eugenia Rawls acts out the Royce letters, there is that incredible moment of hope when the oxen scent water, the Carson River, miles away, and Sarah Royce knows that her prayers, like Hagar's, have been answered.Her children will live.
"The Women of the West" is a sort of feminist "profiles in courage" which Miss Rawls has written herself, from Colorado's historical sources and the women's own letters. Like her own scripts for "Tallulah: a Memory," which she will perform at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland this month, and for Fanny Kemble, years of research and rewriting have gone into the scripts. She says she writes with the ear of both an actress and a writer. After all, which one would leave out that pungent line of Tallulah's, when asked if it was true that Bette Davis was to play her in the film "All About Eve": "Hasn't she always?" roared Tallu.