by J.M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
March 24, 2009
OVERCOMING CULTURE SHOCK
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "I can't work like this" screams the dresser, throwing a costume down. The co-producer is yelling, "OK. I'm gone! Take my name off the program. I won't have anything to do with this show!"
Nerves are strung tight for the annual Broadway-style lip-synch musical at Lauderdale West, a retirement community so full of divas that this year the theater club - riven by hatred - has split into two.
On one side is my mother, Rose Kagan, 91, who has been writing, directing, choreographing and starring in these shows for something like 35 years. On the other side is a newer director and his cohorts. Passion runs so high between the competing groups that one night my mother and her friends broke into the costume locker and stole all the costumes they could carry. The next night, the other group did the same.
Mom retired a few years ago, but she was brought back to do one last show - out of spite, she says. It's a "best of" show called "Encore Broadway: A Bouquet of Rose's."
It's no small thing. There are 28 people in the cast, plus heavy scenery, glittery costumes, dances, lights, props and music.
Mom is overtired. The day of the first dress rehearsal, she's putting makeup on in her bathroom when she starts screaming my name. I rush in, expecting the worst, but it's just that she can't pull up her tights.
An hour later she is calm and beautiful once again. How she manages this trick is beyond my powers of comprehension, but the white-haired bone-and-rag ghost that I've been looking at all day is now a white-crowned, regal beauty in a black sequined dress that catches the light and glows.
Costumes over my arm, I drive her to theater and hand her off to a stagehand. A few minutes later there are cries of "Rose's daughter! Where's Rose's daughter?" Mother is once again hysterical. It seems I brought the wrong carryall.
After I correct my mistake, I go outside to the shuffleboard court and cry. At home I lead a life fairly devoid of drama. Here, I'm out of my element, and I'm terrified that I'm not strong enough to support my mother through all this. I call my husband in Vermont. He suggests "the power of positive drinking."
When I get back, mother, in a stunning turquoise silk number shot with brilliants, is directing the dancers. It's her "Mame" outfit.
The next day, my cousin Joan flies in from New York. She is not only a successful manufacturer but a former psychiatric nurse. Perfect backup! Since Joan is tired from her trip, we skip rehearsal. I wait up for Mother, and at 11 p.m. the front door bursts open and a disembodied female voice shouts, "Joyce! Come get your mother. She's a little shaky." Seems that Mom started to do her "Sweet Charity" number and passed out. When she came to, she directed the rest of the show from a seat in the house. I march her off to bed, feed her crackers and V8 juice, wave my finger in her face and say, "Never, never again!" She agrees, but she's promised that before. Friday night is the full dress rehearsal. The performers are lively. The costumes are marvelous. The choreography is clever and surprising. The whole thing is so lovely, so joyous, so happy, so beautiful and so heartfelt that you forgive - for a short time - all the insecurities, drama, ego and rudeness. And Mother is so elegant, so feminine, so talented! She's onstage magic. You can't keep your eyes off her. She's doing "If You Could See Me Now." She takes her top hat and cane and starts to dance. Then a false step, a slip, and bang! She's down, hitting her head on the bench behind her. She lies there crumpled. Joan and I rush up.
We get her to stand and walk to a chair. The 911 medics come and check her over. Mom's blood pressure is 140 over 90. That's some good medication she's on; I'm sure mine is higher. I call Randy. "Drink some more," he says.
Saturday morning we all troupe down to the ER. It wouldn't be a trip to Florida without a visit. Mom gets X-rays and a CAT scan. She's fine, thank God. Nothing broken except her pride. When we get home there are 14 messages from people wanting to know how she is. Joan and I have the soles of her dancing shoes machine-scored so she won't slip again.
And then it's opening night. The house is packed and the audience loves the show. When it's time for "Sweet Charity," my stomach is churning, my heart is racing and I have shooting pains in my head.
The curtain opens on Mom looking like an enchanting 16-year-old. The audience becomes alert. "There's Rose," I hear someone whisper. They applaud before she even starts. I'm hyperventilating and shoving my fists into my mouth. But she is singing and dancing and she's wonderful and the audience loves her. There are shouts of "Bravo" when she finishes.
I run into the lobby and cry hysterically for 10 minutes. Later, cast members tell me they were crying too. Joan says her heart almost stopped.
But Mom? She's now standing center stage as the whole cast salutes her with: "You came, you saw, you conquered/ And absolutely nothing is the same/ You're special fascination'll/Prove to be inspirational/ We think you're just sensational/ Mame!"
Rose Kagan, brilliant, one last time.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in Dummerston, Vt.