Gabby Beans, who plays Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, is a self-described “military brat” who was born in Georgia, grew up all over the place, and attended high school in Oberammergau, Germany, where her father was stationed. The other day, Beans told me about a formative moment during her teenage years: she attended a performance of Brecht’s Mother Courage, in London, which starred Fiona Shaw.
“It was the first time I had seen an actress inhabit a role of such scale,” Beans said. “I was completely taken with that.” After her undergraduate years at Columbia University, where she majored in neuroscience and theater, Beans decided not to follow in the professional footsteps of her physician mother but to return to the city of that Mother Courage by enrolling at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
“The educational system is different in London than from the States,” Beans said. “The teachers at LAMDA are not under review from the students so they can give you some harsh criticism. That doesn’t work for everyone but it did for me. As a military brat, I’d been conditioned to respond well to negative re-enforcement. The process of harsh scrutiny made me feel fearless in my work. I’m not afraid to look stupid and fail.”
Such an approach was helpful to Beans early in rehearsal for Sabina, who plays the maid in the household of Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus. “At first I didn’t know where the play was going to live temporally,” Beans said. “I came in with Sabina as a modern girl from Queens.” It didn’t work. “The Queens girl and Sabina didn’t mesh.”
When Beans realized that Lileana Blain-Cruz, the production’s director, was going to place the first act roughly in the 1950s, another idea took shape.
“I started to think about glamorous, seductive black women of the 1940s and 1950s,” Beans said. “I immediately thought of Eartha Kitt. And my Sabina voice emerged.”
Beans researched Kitt -- not only the roles (the 1958 film Anna Lucasta is a favorite) but the life. Did Beans worry that she couldn’t sustain Kitt’s type of voice, which is much higher than Beans’s own speaking voice? “I chose a voice I knew I could sustain,” Beans answered.
And she did – until the first few previews. “What taxed me wasn’t the Eartha kind of voice but the Beaumont. Even though we’re miked, the voice requires a level of physical support and power I’m not used to using. I hadn’t done a play for two years.” (Beans had concentrated on TV and movies, including the upcoming feature, The Harbinger, an indie horror flick.)
Beans has been making the necessary adjustments. “I’m learning how to fill the Beaumont space with more clarity. And I’m learning what to do outside the theater in order to give my all in performances.” Beans is putting into practice a key theme of The Skin of Our Teeth: surviving under challenging circumstances. Not just surviving but thriving.
And thriving in a big, juicy role. “Sabina truly enjoys life,” Beans said. “As much as she is tossed about by the waves of everything falling apart she is also right there enjoying things. She says: ‘Enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate. That’s my philosophy.’”
Sabina’s hedonism connects with the free-wheeling nature of Tallulah Bankhead, who did the character in the play’s initial Broadway production, in 1942. Beans researched Bankhead as much as she researched Kitt: “Tallulah really lived loudly and without much concern for other people’s opinions.” Had Beans heard of Bankhead before this year? “That’s what’s weird,” Beans responded. “When I was young, I would put on these little shows. And my mom would introduce me as ‘Tallulah Bankhead.’ When I told my mom I would be playing one of Tallulah's roles, she answered. “It was a prophecy.’ And I guess it was.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com