Thursday, December 23, 2010

Play's the Thing


There is a theory among some parapsychologists-- spook hunters-- that the moving of objects supposed to be caused by poltergeists is really caused by teenage girls living next door. 

I accept that theory as a matter of proven fact.

Scarlett was a charming nymphet-- a true Lolita -- a beautiful girl, well under the age of eighteen-- still in school, I believe-- but with figure, brains and ability to play a young married woman in New York City. She had long hair the color of ripe corn, full lips and a smile that would’ve besotted a Renascence painter. And she was our leading lady, Scarlett, the daughter of the doctor in Nicotinia, the Virginia village where we rehearsed in an old abandoned theater above town hall.

The producer took one look at her and quietly made arrangements to see that she was driven to and from rehearsals and never left alone with any of the male actors. 

Our play was Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and I didn’t feel it was a very ambitious project for the second production of our budding new company. But the director, a man who’d spent a lot of his life in community theater, thought it was more than enough. As it turned out, he was right.

"You just remember y’r lines-- try not t’ bump into any o’ th’ furniture!"

"Have I ever bumped into any furniture on stage?"

"Sure, lots o’ times!."

"Yeh, but I didn’t break anything!"

Our leading man in the production was an actor named Harry Taylor-- an energetic, muscular, dark-haired young man with a deep rich vein of humor in him and a talent that went way beyond the demands of our little provincial company. Besides being handsome, Harry had an enormous font of emotional resource that he’d learned to draw upon. He could reach down into a character and pull up his heart and show it to you, this with the slightest of hand and without chewing a bit of scenery or breaking a sweat.

His wife Henrietta, a slight blonde woman with large sad eyes and a long face, a little heavy in the thigh, hung on his arm and looked up at him with adoring gaze. She accompanied Harry to every rehearsal, fetched him cokes between scenes and soon became the gofer, fetching cokes for everybody. I remember her standing by his side at the edge of the curtain one evening looking out over the heads of the actors into the nearly-empty dark theater, a faint smile on her lips as if she wanted to turn away and didn’t quite know how to.

We were halfway through one of the early rehearsals when the first signs of real trouble surfaced.

This was the night Harry as Paul had to kiss Scarlett as Corrie on stage. Being in a rural county meant there was a great deal of fakery, of course, and the kiss could not be too passionate-- nevertheless, he had to kiss her-- really kiss her, or seem to anyway. I knew the director had worried about this. He’d delayed rehearsing the scene because he wasn’t sure how Harry’s wife would take it watching her husband kiss another woman in front of an audience-- including relatives and friends. But the moment had come.

I was backstage and didn’t see what happened but those who were out front reported that when Harry embraced Scarlett and put his mouth on her lips, Henrietta gave a start, a little gasp-- her fixed smile never wavered but her body twisted involuntarily in her seat and she turned white as a sheet, her eyes bugged out of her head and she seemed to stop breathing for a long time.

From that moment, a subtle change, an alchemy if you will, took place in Henrietta. Nothing outward, mind you-- little things-- she ignored the kiss when it came back up for rehearsal and she began pay noticeable attention to every detail and nuance of the play-- she read the script again and again and became the prompter for the final rehearsals-- she watched with eager interest each entrance and exit. She was no longer the gofer, fetched cokes for no one. It was as if she was preparing for something, something in the play itself, and it wasn’t long in coming.

The director had planned a tour-- we would take the play to different towns in Morituck County-- start here in Nicotinia at the local school auditorium, go on to Scott’s Pillock, then to Bluestone, and strike the set in the last town, transporting the equipment and materials back to our rehearsal hall. It seemed simple enough-- the sets had been made so they could be taken down and reconstructed and we’d raised enough money for the U-Haul-- the only hitch was Scarlett.

Because of the long run of the play-- long by our community theater standards-- over three weeks with performances on every weekend-- a conflict had arisen: her family had made vacation plans-- a week away right in the middle of the run. But-- chin up-- she announced she was prepared to sacrifice and to stay with the play.

Henrietta stepped in.

"I know the lines. I can do the part."

She smiled, not a sad smile this time, and the look of cold hatred on her face when she glanced at Scarlett would’ve frozen an Eskimo’s plans for a family. Our leading lady did not argue and neither did anyone else. The director was strangely silent.

The rest of our rehearsal time was divided between the two women. Scarlett was ready and Henrietta had memorized every phrase and studied every movement-- she already had the role down pat-- it only remained for the director to let her work through it and concentrate on weak spots and smooth out pacing and changes in mood or place.

Henceforth, Henrietta never sat out front-- she was always backstage or in the wings looking on if she wasn’t rehearsing. When Harry was up-- whether with Scarlett or not-- she stood at the side of the stage and never took her eyes off him. Her expression became one of constant hunger.

And whenever Scarlett left the stage, she always looked at Henrietta-- her lexpression was one of triumph.

The play began and Scarlett was superb. Her timing was amazing-- Henrietta’s hungry look deepened. Now she watched closely when time came for the kiss-- I caught her standing on tiptoes and I could almost see her counting the seconds the kiss lasted.

At the matinee at the end of the first week, still in Nicotinia, I forgot my lines into the second half of the first act. I whispered to Scarlett and she shook her head and whispered back.
"I can’t help you-- I don’t know ‘em!"

I tried to think of something to do with my hands. I fidgeted. My mind wouldn’t work-- thus followed the longest thirty seconds in my life. Then the lines came back into my head and I recovered and went on. I chanced a glance at the audience-- they knew!-- and they smiled, they didn’t care! At that moment I loved them all.

At the end of the first run we went straight to Scot’s Pillock. Henrietta took over the role and Scarlett disappeared for awhile. But Henrietta did not relax-- her movements, her attitudes, if anything, became more frantic. She was trying to capture something-- but she was competent in the role, no more. The harder she tried the more apparent it became that something was missing-- the spark that existed on-stage between Harry and Scarlett was gone-- that excitement between two strangers exchanging emotions simply could not be captured between a husband and wife in front of an audience. A kiss is just a kiss.
I began to understand backstage love-affairs.

Because of generous public air time and word-of-mouth, we were expecting good audiences in Scot’s Pillock. Instead, we found ourselves playing to empty houses-- once to only five people at the Sunday matinee. Few people came to the evening performances either. But Henrietta saved us. Her friends drove up from Carolina, up all the way from Durham, and they were the only decent audience we had in the town.

The final weekend of the play saw us moving to Bluestone and Scarlett returning. as Corrie. She popped her head in to say hello and smiled and ignored her rival, accepting her role as if it were naturally hers and the other person had only been keeping her place warm.
And I was to have my own final moment with Scarlett.

Because she’d been gone a week, the director decided to rehearse her lines briefly-- just a run-through to make sure she was up on her dialogue and timing. So, we went back to the old theater in Nicotinia– just for the practice before Bluestone.

Having been abandoned, there was no power in the auditorium and we rehearsed in the evening by aid of a lamp connected to a drop-cord that was run up the side of the building from the street below. This gave little light in the theater, and one evening-- somehow-- the rest of the company had drifted away-- lord only knows what they were doing, but I was alone with Scarlett-- alone with her in the dust and gloom and dim recesses of that ancient building.

We were going through our lines together when suddenly we looked at one another and, standing ten feet apart, we stopped and there was some sort of a connection between the two of us-- I don’t know what happened but-- I swear to god, electricity trickled from my toes!
This young girl was looking at me with the same look on her face I had on mine--
It was innocent enough, I suppose, but suddenly it scared the hell out of me. I wanted to run and couldn’t and the only thought I had at the moment was, This girl is underage– and I’m going to jail! Yes, I’m going to prison right here in Morituck County! God, help me!
It was gone as soon as it happened.-- it passed in a minute and she smiled.

"Did you feel that? I’ve never-- had anything happen like that before!"

The company came back and I heaved a sigh of relief.

By now, Henrietta’s hungry look had become one of desperation. She haunted the wings and paced backstage in a restless to and fro movement that saw all of us stepping out of her way.
The two women seldom passed one another in the corridor backstage and when they did the tension became so heavy no one could stand it-- players and crew began to walk out into the alley for air. Not a few of us looked longingly at the street.

Came the last performance, another matinee, and my final vision of Henrietta in the theater was a glimpse I had of her in the wings as Scarlett was out front taking her last bow with Harry-- I was just coming back, leaving the stars to their accolades, and I saw her hanging on the curtain, clinging to it madly, with tears in her eyes.

Harry never did another play.

He and Henrietta joined some kind of fundamentalist church that condemned theater and I saw them only once thereafter on the street. Henrietta was pushing a baby-carriage and both of them had put on weight.

I thought of Scarlett as I’d seen her that evening in the abandoned auditorium and I knew I had been given a vision of something-- witchcraft, maybe. And I knew young girls could move objects.


Author: Jack Peachum