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One-woman show looks to young Bette Davis for portrait of the actress

Jessica Sherr stars as the title character in the one-woman play "Bette Davis Ain't for Sissies." | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Creative types will testify to the fact that inspiration can sometimes come from the oddest places. That odd moment for actress Jessica Sherr came in the form of a comment that would send her on a path she never expected.

‘Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies’
When: June 15-July 2
Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport
Tickets: $24-$34
Info: athenaeumtheatre.org

When: June 25
Where: Club Arcada Speakeasy, 105 E. Main, St. Charles
Tickets: $40
Info: arcadalive.com

“People kept saying to me, ‘You have Bette Davis eyes,’ ” Sherr recalls. And it wasn’t just friends. “I would hear it from random people on street corners. I remember thinking ‘This is weird.’ ”

At around the same time in 2008, Sherr, who was then working in film and commercials, was challenged in an acting class to develop a one-woman show, a prospect she had never considered before. A vivacious redhead, Sherr immediately thought of Lucille Ball, an actress she had long admired for her comedy style. Yet the name in the back of her mind that kept surfacing was Bette Davis, an iconic actress she didn’t know much about, which in itself was intriguing.

Sherr decided to investigate Davis’ life. She read books about Davis, watched her many films (“Now, Voyager” is Sherr’s favorite) and discovered that Davis had dyed her hair red for the 1938 movie “Jezebel,” which she felt was the connection she was looking for.

“I decided to be like Daniel Day-Lewis and learn how to build a character from the history of a person as opposed to using just an impression of the person,” Sherr says. “It all began to jell after that decision.”

Bette Davis in 1939, the year she appeared in four hits for Warner Bros. She earned a third Oscar nomination for that year’s “Dark Victory.” | Warner Bros.

Sherr’s one-woman show, “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies,” makes its Chicago debut in a three-week run at the Athenaeum Theater. (She’ll also take it to St. Charles for a one-night performance at the Arcada Theatre’s new space The Club Arcada Speakeasy.)

Bette Davis is having a bit of a moment. The recent television drama “Feud” focused on the terse relationship between Davis and Joan Crawford during the making of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” Davis’ loss at the Academy Awards (it would have been her third win) and their struggles as women in the Hollywood system. “Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies” homes in on a younger Davis and an earlier loss at the 1940 Oscar ceremony in which Davis (nominated for “Dark Victory,” again it would have been her third win) lost to Vivien Leigh (“Gone With the Wind”).

This earlier loss bookends Sherr’s 70-minute piece in which Davis, a unique and formidable woman, looks back at her journey to Hollywood. Sherr feels people don’t know much about the young Bette Davis and what drove her. The initial 12-minute piece became part of “The Redheads,” an Off-Broadway production that explored the lives of Davis, Ball and Shirley MacLaine.

The New York-based Sherr admits that at the time she wasn’t a theater actor: “I wasn’t trained to create plays.” So there were some bumpy moments. She got into the New York Fringe Festival after expanding the show. “I got destroyed at the Fringe,” she says with a laugh. “Terrible reviews.”

People were expecting to see drunk older Bette; Sherr was portraying young Bette fighting her way to the top. “I knew I had something interesting here but knew it needed more work,” Sherr admits. So instead of throwing it away she dug in, did more research and eventually took the show to the fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland; London’s St. James Theatre, and Off Broadway as well as touring the show across the country.

At one point during her research, Sherr reached out to the Davis’ estate, as she wasn’t sure how much of the actress’ story she could legally use. A return call from Kathryn Sermak, Davis’ former assistant and co-executor of her estate, led Sherr to Los Angeles.

“Kathryn was so gracious and willing to help,” Sherr recalls. “She looked at the script and gave me advice about what Bette would and wouldn’t do.”

At the end of the week, Sermak handed Sherr a box saying, “Bette would have wanted you to have this.” It contained gloves, a scarf, handkerchief and earrings that once belonged to Davis, all of which are now used in the show.

After that moment everything started to come together. Sherr says through this project she’s learned to stand up for herself as an artist.

“Bette was so smart and such a strong woman and presence,” she says. “I feel so lucky in a way to have had her as a mentor. She taught me to be myself, to fight to do good work, to stand up for what I believe in.

“Once I started writing, I realized how much I was falling in love with her. I really want this show to live so people don’t forget about her. She’s not one of those stars like Marilyn Monroe whose image you see everywhere. I hope this show helps keep her legacy alive.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.