Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art.
For AJ Mooney, that’s an accurate assessment. It just took getting personal with a certain blond bombshell for her to find the art in her life again.
Mooney will return this week to the Bangor Opera House stage, performing as legendary movie star Mae West, in Penobscot Theatre Company’s Maine premiere production of “Dirty Blonde,” a critically ac-claimed portrait of the Hollywood icon that had its Broadway debut back in 2000. The show opens in previews on Wednesday, Feb. 9, and runs through Feb. 27.
After a two-year break from acting professionally, Mooney’s creative spark was reinvigor-ated by the compelling life story of West, told through the words of playwright and actress Claudia Shear. Mooney last appeared onstage in PTC’s production of “Dinner With Friends,” staged in March 2009. Though she turned in an excellent performance — Mooney may be the most talented fe-male actress in eastern Maine — by the end of the run, she was spent.
“I just wasn’t feeling it. I have never wanted to just do theater for theater’s sake, and that’s what it was becoming for me,” said Mooney. “I don’t want to act just to say I’m acting. It has to mean something. It has to resonate, somehow.”
Mooney has taught theater and dance at the University of Maine for a number of years, and she threw herself into the educational aspect of perform-ance soon after “Dinner With Friends” ended. She sought no roles, and no roles approached her. A year and a half later, a phone call from PTC’s produc-ing artistic director Scott R.C. Levy changed that.
“Scott knew he wanted to do ‘Dirty Blonde,’ and he basically called me up and said, ‘We’re doing this show, but I’m only doing it if you’re Mae West,’” said Mooney. “I was sold right then and there.”
While in college in the 1980s, Mooney performed as another blond bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. But while Monroe em-bodied the ditsy, defenseless, tragic starlet, ruined by men and by Hollywood, West was another beast entirely. Strong, self-assured and wildly intelligent, West was a woman ahead of her time. Where other female celebrities are devoured by fame and used by the estab-lishment, West never lost her strength, her confidence and her unshakable sense of self.
“What made her different from every other female of her time was that she was com-pletely self-actualized. She let nothing stop her,” said Mooney. “She was never a victim. She said what she wanted, she chose the men she wanted, she wrote her own scripts, she con-trolled her own destiny. In the 1930s, that was unheard of. To go from Marilyn Monroe when I was in college, to playing Mae West when I’m 43, seems kind of appropriate, you know?”
West is best known for the string of films she starred in the 1930s, including “She Done Him Wrong,” “I’m No Angel” and “Klondike Annie,” in which she played herself as Diamond Lil, a sexy, super-smart woman, who never held back from saying what she thought. Her frank, sexually enlightened personae often got in her trouble, even sending her to jail for obscenity in the late 1920s, when she was still a vaudeville star.
“She pushed the envelope so hard, at a time when nobody else did,” said Joye Cook-Levy, who directs PTC’s “Dirty Blonde.” “She was never vulgar or obscene about it, though. She was much more interested in the subtlety of the tease.”
“Dirty Blonde” tells three stories simultaneously. West’s tale begins with her birth in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1890s, continues through her vaude-ville days in the early 20th cen-tury, focuses on her 10-year reign as the leading lady of Hol-lywood in the 1930s and early ’40s, and then leads into her declining years, from the 1950s onward.
“She was born with the horse and buggy, and she died in 1980. That’s an incredible swath of history,” said Mooney. “As she herself said, ‘I had great tim-ing.’ She was born at the perfect time to be who she was.”
While illustrating West’s life, “Dirty Blonde” also tells the story of the friendship of two West idolizers; the brash but vulnerable Jo, played by Mooney, and the shy, sensitive Charlie, played by Equity actor Gary Litman. As the pair de-velops a relationship, their shared struggles and joys mir-ror the story of West’s life. The many songs West made famous are featured prominently in the show, which could be classified as a play with music, in much the same way last year’s pro-duction of “Spunk” was. Music director Ian Lowe performs in the show, playing piano onstage and interacting with West.
Mooney is as fiercely intelli-gent in person as she is onstage, and with her leonine way of moving and her quick wit, she seems a natural to play the part of West. She has spent the bet-ter part of six months prepar-ing for her role, reading West’s biography, watching her films, and sometimes, simply going home after teaching classes and doing a Google image search for pictures of the icon.
“Sometimes I just kind of look at her and think about her. Her art was herself. Her art was her life,” said Mooney. “It’s huge shoes to try to walk in. But I think I can draw on her inner strength and resilience.”
“Dirty Blonde” will have two preview performances, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 9 and 10. Opening night is set for 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at the Bangor Opera House. The show runs for 15 performances through Sunday, Feb. 27. Tick-ets start at $20; for information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.