by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 13, 2008
OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - It's 1931, and a 14-year-old girl is standing alone on a stage. She's small and lively with dark curly hair, widespread hazel eyes, slender wrists and an open, eager face filled with the wonder of performing. Her name is Rose, and one day she will be my mother. But now she is performing an Eugene O'Neill monologue called "Before Breakfast" for a ladies' club in a wealthy suburb of Long Island.
My mother's character, Mrs. Rowland, comes out of the bedroom of a shabby apartment. According to the stage directions, she has a "weak, spiteful mouth." She is "in her early twenties, but looks much older."
She ties on an apron with "her clumsy fingers," lights the stove, puts on the coffee and then "gulps" a large glass of Gordon's Gin. The alcohol, O'Neill writes, animates her.
How can a 14-year-old girl know the effects of gin?
Mrs. Rowland looks toward the bedroom door with a "hard, vindictive smile on her lips." She calls to her husband, Alfred. When he doesn't answer, she goes through his coat pockets and finds a letter. Reading it, "At first her expression is one of hatred and rage," O'Neill writes. "It changes to one of triumphant malignity."
How does a 14-year-old girl smile with triumphant malignity?
At the end of the piece, after berating Alfred for getting another woman pregnant - as he once did to her - Mrs. Rowland hears something crash to the floor. She looks into the bedroom, screams "Alfred!" then "shrieks wildly" and runs out of the apartment.
"At the end," my mother said, "I'm standing there calling my husband while he's off-stage killing himself. Not appropriate at all. But I held the audiences spellbound. They all applauded. They couldn't believe I could do that part. And I performed it over and over again."
When my mother talks about her youth, I am sometimes filled with a desire to reach into the past, embrace her gently, lift her away and tuck her someplace safe.
But young Rose would resist. She is enthralled by performing. This is the happiest time of her life.
Now it is March of 2008. A 90-year-old woman is standing on a stage. She's dressed as the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz." Straw scatters as she kicks up her heels and dances to "We're Off To See the Wizard (Follow the Yellow Brick Road)." She's small and lively with white hair, widespread hazel eyes, slender wrists and an open, eager face filled with the wonder of performing.
This is the most miserable time of her life.
My mother has been doing these Broadway-style musical comedies for the last 35 years at her Florida condo. Usually, she's been the scriptwriter, the director and the star dancer. She's always been the choreographer.
There are always monumental ego wars when the Lauderdale West Theater Group mounts its big, splashy, colorful March shows. Backstabbing and temper tantrums are as much a part of the experience as sequins, fringe, blue eye shadow and the requisite drag number.
This time the victim was my mother, and nothing I could do would keep her safe.
If you live to be 90, you bury a lot of people along the way. Many of the old theater group members have died, or moved up north to be with their children, or gotten too old to rehearse and perform.
A new, "younger" group has moved in to take their places. (The minimum buy-in age for Lauderdale West is 55, so take "younger" with a large grain of salt.)
This new group was determined to take over, so my mother stepped back for two years while others wrote and directed the productions. But she always choreographed, and she always took at least one star turn.
Last year, the previous year's director grew cocky and assumed that the board would keep handing him the reins. But my mother presented the board with a good working script and took the show back. While the other director and his cohorts raged, steamed and plotted against her, my mother pulled out one last great effort.
Her finest hour, she told me, was when her next-door neighbor, who always brings a crowd of friends to the Friday night show, demanded two solos for her efforts. Mother refused to be blackmailed. The woman, who shall be nameless, quit the show. She has snubbed my mother ever since. Imagine - once she had the keys to my mother's house and had helped her in emergencies, but now she refuses to acknowledge her presence, even when they leave their houses at the same time.
Mom's show was excellent. She even staged a full-length "American in Paris" ballet with these aging amateurs. But at 89, it took a lot out of her.
This year, the other director got his show back. He put his whole crew, including the angry neighbor, on the casting committee. And they took their revenge.
When my mother started choreographing, the director cut out the dancing. She was only given one number, and it wasn't a solo. Worse, it was early in the first act, so she was forced to wait around backstage in order to take her curtain call. It couldn't have been more cruel, and my mother was terribly upset.
Still, as wounded as she was, she did her Scarecrow number with verve, grace and class. At 90, she's still a great performer.
The "youngsters" won, but at a terrible karmic cost.
So is my mother ready to quit the stage?
Not exactly. When I left her on Sunday morning, she was talking about putting together a dance troupe.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at email@example.com.