If you happen to be of the opinion that Arthur Penn's much-praised 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde has not aged well, you will come away from Inside Bonnie Parker, a one-woman show currently playing at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, with the joyous feeling that your dissent has been completely justified. Granted, Penn and actor-writer Dixie Lee Sedgwick have pursued almost diametrically opposed goals with their productions. He wanted to soup up and spin out the early-'30s Texas myth of Bonnie and Clyde as glamorous outlaws, anti-heroes of the Depression, while she wants to de-mythologize their exploits by explaining the sad fundamentals of time and personality behind them. But if you're not too much of a cinephile to be honest with yourself, it's easy to prefer Sedgwick's edgy, vulnerable, slowly coarsening Bonnie Elizabeth Parker Thornton to Faye Dunaway's smoldering white-trash gangster goddess. The performance of Dunaway -- who met with Sedgwick while the latter was in the process of researching this show -- never seemed to convey a depth any greater than the film's most infamous publicity shot, Dunaway posed with Warren Beatty and rifle beside their getaway car. This was itself a photo manqué of the real picture of Bonnie and Clyde, who had begun to cling to their own celebrity as a consolation for their growing desperation.
Inside Bonnie Parker was previously staged in the old Deep Ellum Opera Theatre space last year as Little Blue-eyed Girl and will be reprised in January at Plano Repertory Theatre. I must say, the original title held more fascination for me, if only because it synopsized the most un-Dunaway aspect of Bonnie Parker, the one given short shrift in Penn's movie. Although the authorities who gunned down the 23-year-old in 1932 conceded that she was no bloodthirsty killer and that when in custody she tended to inspire the paternal aspects of the police who held her (she was given the sheriff's oversize workshirt to wear, to make her more comfortable and feel less "criminal" while behind bars), there was a mystifying devolution from the high school poet, speech-class star, and mini-celebrity who performed Shirley Temple-like as a warm-up act at the stump speeches of local politicians to the accomplice of rage-filled Clyde Barrow. Sedgwick's decision to change the name of her play makes much marketing sense, of course, but the real potency of her cautionary tale lies in what happened to that little blue-eyed girl.
As directed and co-scripted by Joe Black, who along with Sedgwick excerpted letters, diaries, and poems by Parker, Inside Bonnie Parker reveals that the secret to this downward spiral is just as clichéd as and much more satisfyingly complex than watching Dunaway gaze adoringly at Beatty on the big screen -- Bonnie Parker screwed up because she fell in love. Black and Sedgwick have not flinched from reviving as stage dialogue the schoolgirl dreaminess, the dopey True Romance yearnings of Parker. It is because Sedgwick's performance possesses such laser-eyed sincerity that these become almost as chilling as the brilliant valentine-card narration by Sissy Spacek in Terence Malick's classic Badlands, another tale of a good girl gone bad. Of course, Spacek revealed underlying layers of sociopathic disregard in her character, while Sedgwick makes Bonnie Parker sympathetic without apologizing for her. Most of us will probably not be drawn into bank robbery by our desire to love and be loved, but Sedgwick cannily understands that if we are honest with ourselves, the concessions people make for love, however tiny or extreme, exist on the same continuum. It's that deadly desire to be engulfed by somebody who presses all the right buttons that must be guarded against. If that somebody happens to be a Clyde Barrow or a Charles Starkweather, well, are you absolutely certain that when you were a teenager, you had the courage to pull out before it was too late?
Alone onstage for almost two hours, the gamine Dixie Lee Sedgwick as Bonnie Parker has a trained dancer's grace that prevents her early, restless Parker from seeming fidgety, whether she's itching to bolt from her first marriage to philanderer Roy Thornton or holed up in an abandoned church on a rainy night, anxiously awaiting the arrival of her outlaw lover. As the play progresses and Parker becomes at once more frightened and more defiant and, eventually, crippled after she's pinned beneath Clyde's car in a horrifying wreck, Sedgwick slows down and becomes graver, heavier, and resigned to a bad end. If she started out with the hope that her ardor and support would soothe Barrow's wounded soul and even rehabilitate him, she sticks beside him through a bond of escalating mutual injury. Rather than being delivered to the audience, a device often praised as knocking down that fourth wall but sometimes also flattening the drama with a pedantic, pleading quality, Sedgwick's words are usually spoken to unseen characters and, interestingly, they are often women. The fact that she is usually speaking about Clyde Barrow rather than to him is the play's psychological trump card. This character will reveal more about herself when she's rationalizing and justifying her life choices to another, perhaps judgmental female ear than when she's drowning in Barrow's long-lashed brown eyes. And therein, of course, lies the only explanation you need as to why the little blue-eyed girl turned into the bullet-riddled corpse of American criminal legend. However outrageous the Barrow gang's antics became, Clyde continuously offered Bonnie a gift that many of us yearn for: a refuge from thinking about herself, her decisions, her future. Understanding this, the Bonnie Parker of Sedgwick and Black's play suddenly becomes approachable. In Inside Bonnie Parker, she's no longer the sexy, stylish pinup moll of '30s tabloids and '60s Hollywood. She's the articulate young woman who was smart enough to want something better for herself but tragically dumb enough to sink that desire in a handsome killer's adoring gaze.
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