Probably the most shocking thing about the one-woman show My One Good Nerve: A Visit with Ruby Dee is that the smart, funny and charismatic star has spent a half-century as a married woman (to actor Ossie Davis). How can this be? Dee's warmly authoritative voice is the instrument of a child, a woman in her prime and a grande dame. Her movements don't give away any particular vintage, either -- in one astonishing vignette, she plays two characters in a subway, complete with body sway. Actually, this particular anniversary gives Dee herself pause, mostly because the media "outed" the golden status. She explains, in a droll deadpan, that "the truth is, I was courted in utero. I couldn't back down -- I couldn't talk!"
Well, maybe that's the most shocking admission, because it's impossible to believe that Dee, a self-avowed "word-monger sonnet-framer" who also wrote this winning and savory collection of commentary, poetry and blackout sketches, could ever have been incapable of verbal skills. Give her a theme, or just a word, like "hair" or "love," and she's off to the races. "Love is blind, bowlegged," she explains. "Love is when you sink into his arms, and end up with your arms in his sink." She lets us visit with "Rooby Goose" and recites a realpolitik version of children's rhymes (Mary's little lamb hooked up with bah-bah-black-sheep and the fleece wasn't white anymore). And her take on "Pussy in the Well" is ribald, fierce and completely in tune with the times.
James Noone's set is intriguingly stark: desk, chair, podium, bookcases and a bench constructed from oversized texts -- all plaster-white. But Dee's spoken-word material is rich with memory, from "coming-home footsteps" of the sleep-in domestic who boarded at her home to hearing about Marvin Gaye's death and then making a point of listening to his music to understand his legacy. Her tribute to husband Davis, "Making Connections (In Three Parts)," is sly and delightful. She captures the subtleties of domestic harmony in a love letter that turns into an erotic grocery list, then shifts to a real grocery list that's frank and coded. And a prize piece of word-mongering. Happily, the show has recently been extended -- through Oct. 24 -- which should give more St. Louisans a chance to visit with the mesmerizing Ruby Dee.