by J. M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
New York, N.Y.
January 20, 2009
FAMILY TALES FROM NYC
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Ask me why I take such a gloomy view of human nature and the possibility of peace in our time and I'll tell you the story of the dueling theater groups.
The story takes place in Lauderdale West, a well-maintained middle-middle-class retirement compound full of lakes, private homes and falling property values in southern Florida. My mother, Rose Kagan, a gifted amateur choreographer and performer, has been living there for over 35 years.
A few years ago, Mom retired as the lead writer, director and choreographer of the Lauderdale West Theater Group. She was then about 87 or 88.
Back when the community was new, the group performed scripted plays and Broadway musicals. But as the performers aged, they started losing their voices and their memories and switched to lip-synch.
The one thing they never lost? Their egos.
Until this year, the theater group was well organized. It had a president, a board, dues, bylaws, and committees. The clubhouse stage is always reserved for its show on the second weekend in March. About 300 people come to each of the three performances.
Each year, interested members propose shows to the board, which then chooses one person to be the writer/director of the next show. After Mom retired, a competition to replace her began between two younger men - in their 60s. Let's call them Director A and Director B.
Each man wrote, directed and performed in a show. (My mother choreographed and danced.) And although both men displayed special talents, they both also turned out to be tyrants with anger management issues.
The group was in turmoil. They needed a director and a script - usually a loose unifying theme on which to hang a bunch of old songs, like a trip to Las Vegas, or a visit to a Broadway museum. Otherwise, what excuse would they have to put on the thick stage makeup that returns to them their youth? Or to wear those glittery costumes and sing, dance and preen under the bright lights? How could they live without the companionship, the music, the dancing, the applause?
Mom proposed a script based on the four seasons, and that was enough to bring her back for another year as writer, director and choreographer. It was her most ambitious show yet - she restaged Gene Kelly's "American in Paris" Paris street scene number.
So what about 2009?
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a dog in this hunt. I spent the summer of 2008 trying to convince my mother to move to Vermont. I wanted us to spend time together. I wanted to be more of a help to her. She lives alone, 1,000 miles away. Even though we speak on the phone every day, the older she gets the more helpless the distance makes me feel.
I had almost succeeded when Mom returned to Florida and found the theater group again in chaos. Instead of turning in a script and competing for the 2009 director's job, Director B had announced that he was leaving the group and taking most of the performers with him.
To save the group, Mom felt that she had to step in. My dreams of her moving to Vermont evaporated as she, at 91, started putting together a script and picking musical numbers.
Then the war started in earnest. The two groups hated each other. They competed for everything - the March weekend, rehearsal space, budget money, scene designers, costumes, audience and status. The condo's board finally played Solomon and gave the upstart group a January performance date so my mother's group could keep March.
Things got so bad that late one evening, my mother and a few others actually broke into the costume storage and stole as many costumes as they could carry. The next night, the other group broke in and took the rest.
Mom was holding her breath, wondering who would stick by her and who would betray her and join the other group. For months, she didn't know whether she'd actually be able to put on a show.
During the audition period, she was relieved when most of the best performers came out to work with her. And she was so mad at the others for breaking up the theater group - a group she had devoted her life to - that she still won't talk to most of them.
I'd like to remind you that we're talking about adults here - gray-haired grandparents and great-grandparents, for God's sake.
Last week I visited my mother and went to a few rehearsals. It was wonderful to see most of the old gang again, but passions were still running high and the competitive atmosphere was venomous. One of my mother's producers said, "People ask me what show I'm in, and I encourage them to see the other one. That way, they'll really like ours."
I snuck into a rehearsal of the breakaway group, saw some of my mother's old friends and actually felt the anger rising up in me - how could they betray her like this?
So if a group of lip-synching grandparents can't find ways to get along, how can I have hope for the future of nations?
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com.