Barbara Rush is a gracious, intelligent actress, but she is working to little avail in "A Woman of Independent Means," the one-woman show at Ford's Theatre that traces the life of a certain Bess Steed Garner from 1890 to 1977.

It is possible you have never heard of the lady before. I hadn't. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's script -- made up of the letters that Bess Steed Garner wrote over the years to her friends, relatives, husbands, children, lawyers and the editor of the Dallas morning newspaper -- certainly fills you in on a lot of details.

The character is based on Hailey's maternal grandmother, a Texas-born matriarch who seems to have evinced some pluck and fortitude over her long, long life, not to mention a bent for international travel. She was well-heeled and wanted to make sure that her children had all the advantages of wealth and position, "if only to prove how meaningless they are." After her first husband died, she took over his insurance business and apparently made a go of it.

She could be manipulative when it came to getting her hands on the family antiques. But she was never crass. And if she meddled in the life of her married daughter, misguided love was probably the motive. She wedded a second time -- to a stay-at-home whose chief virtue was that he adored her children and they him. So she took off regularly on her own. While not above the occasional flirtation, she nonetheless remained a faithful spouse over the haul.

She knew grief, but she also knew happiness. She laughed. She wept. And she wore a lot of fashionable hats.

I wish I could say two hours' worth of such revelations amounts to something consequential. But watching "A Woman of Independent Means" is like being obliged to leaf through a stranger's scrapbook. The pressed flowers and the yellowing missives clearly meant something to someone once, but the most they elicit from us, who have no personal stake in the family history, is polite curiosity and dutiful respect. And maybe a muffled yawn.

"In compressing and editing the events of my life," Bess tells us at the start, "I infuse them with an intensity totally lacking at the time." That, of course, is what drama is supposed to do. But Hailey's script, hopping like a jack rabbit from one event to the next, compresses events down to the size of a pinpoint. We get a picture of what happened, but it's a decidedly impressionistic picture -- a relentless accumulation of unfused dabs and dots.

If Bess Steed Garner was a remarkable woman, she was no more remarkable than thousands of others who also managed to raise their broods in the face of war, the Depression and an influenza epidemic. Was she a glorious eccentric, a kind of Dallas Auntie Mame? Not really, although she was among the first to drive her own car and made no bones about traipsing over the planet by herself. Surveying the guests at her first husband's funeral, Bess suddenly realizes how little of his life she shared. "{He} would have known everyone at my funeral," she notes pensively.

But the seeds of feminism, if seeds there be, produce only tiny sprouts. "When does a woman cease to be the hostage of her family?" she muses. To her daughter, studying in Europe, she writes, "The best dowry a woman can bring to a marriage is a set of memories she has acquired alone." When President Kennedy is assassinated, Bess feels compelled to write a letter of sisterly compassion to the president's widow.

Rush handles the multiple moods of "A Woman of Independent Means" with honesty and vivacity and succeeds in making Bess Steed Garner real enough. A handsome actress, she gets to wear a half-dozen outfits designed by Garland Riddle, thus lending sartorial elegance to the enterprise. But she is up against a script that never isolates what is special about the character, just as it fails to find a common humanity in her ordinariness.

The evening comes alive only in the last 10 minutes. Bess is by then a white-haired octogenarian, her body crippled by arthritis, her silvery voice reduced to a rasp, her lips collapsing inward on the toothless cavity of her mouth. It is an artful depiction of decrepitude, and when Rush recites Bess' final letters -- by now childlike in their syntax and simple vocabulary -- we are touched.

Nothing that goes before is half so affecting. "A Woman of Independent Means" may be a well-meaning tribute from a granddaughter to her grandmother. But you can admire its good intentions and still wonder what it's doing on a stage. Not all family stories require public telling.

A Woman of Independent Means, by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. Directed by Norman Cohen. Set, Roy Christopher; costumes, Garland Riddle; lighting, Pam Rank; incidental music, Henry Mancini. With Barbara Rush. At Ford's Theatre through Oct. 11.