Monday, March 20, 2006

 

Thoughts from Our Town

As I write this, I sit in an auditorium full of elementary, middle, junior high and high school students, practicing The Sound of Music for the local High School.

Little Manly joined choir and select choir this year, decided to try out for the musical at the High School, was cast as one of the Von Trapp children, and here I sit.

Those who have followed the adventures of Little Manly may not be surprised at this turn of events. Those too who have read my accounts of daughters Spud and Jilly Beans no doubt picked up the many family traditions that may have contributed to Little Manly’s interest, and perhaps aptitude.

These kids do a fantastic job. The community in which we’ve made our home is perhaps even more devoted to music and drama, than they are obsessive about sports. And they’re sports fanatics. Little Manly is a big hit in his first production, admired for both his easy nature, excellent singing, and ability to hit the highest notes in the cast. I think he’s caught the bug.

I haven’t thought about my life in the theater for quite a while, not really, but Little Manly’s recent adventures have brought on a flood of reveries. That, and I have a lot more time on my hands (and on my butt) sitting in the theater as “chaperone.”

I started acting the same time I started on the school newspaper, as a 10th grader new to High School and painfully awkward and shy. (Don’t ask me, I can’t really explain the change, either.) I went to my first audition, for The Crucible, because the members of the “Bear Facts,” the newspaper named in honor of the school mascot, decided it would be a hoot to all go audition.

Quite a few of us got cast, including me. I think this was when I first met Bill Gorman, who ever after represented many things for me, foremost among them an unconditional love of theater.

Bill was an English Teacher, the Drama Club advisor on the side, and a fixture in local drama circles. (After he retired, he became a principal player with The Cider Mill, another local institution with which I have many fond connections. More on that shortly.) Bill also joined an artists' cooperative, which features some of Bill’s excellent photographic work.)

I would call this “my early exposure to theater,” except as Little Manly has demonstrated, “early” could be sooner than I supposed. Early or not, my first attempt started an intense interest, so much so that I subsequently pursued not only local civic theater, but took a degree in Theater, with a concentration in Directing, at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton.

I write this now amid many young people, among whom I am sure will be those who “share this love,” as Captain Von Trapp describes, as he serenades his audience with the Austrian anthem, “Edelweiss.”

(Don’t get me started on that. I cry every time I watch that scene in the movie, where the Captain sings the anthem of his homeland. Overwhelmed by the sadness of the loss of their freedom to the Nazi Anschluss, Captain Von Trapp loses his voice while singing the song to his countrymen. Those who view such “Nationalism” as an outmoded evil should ponder. What things beside love of country can so fortify those who stand against tyranny and oppression?)

Little Manly may or may not grow in attachment to the dramatic arts. One of the delightful ways I can encourage his further interest, is bringing us back to the Cider Mill when opportunities present.

A weekend ago we did just that. Mrs. Dadmanly keeps an eye on the season programs, and I had earlier remarked on an upcoming production of Our Town. When it came closer, Mrs. Dadmanly suggested a Sunday matinee, coupled with a visit to a favored eatery that served the local treasure, Speidies.

(Invented by local charcoal pit Lupo’s, Speidies are a marinated pork (or chicken and sometimes lamb), skewered and grilled and served in a slice of Italian bread. So far as I know, this delicacy is limited to a close proximity to the “Triple Cities” (Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City). We will indeed drive 2 hours one way just to get Speidies, but if we can pair it with a stop at the Cider Mill, that’s heaven.

Even more of a treat, when I realized that Bill Gorman was taking the part of the Stage Manager, the role Paul Newman played in the recent Broadway run.

This is Bill at his finest. He’s one of those gentlemen who can’t escape the character parts to which his face near condemns him. Even 30 years ago, he had that sad, careworn look that carried both worries and excitement in well-etched furrows. He has an enviable energy, too, and can generate a level of passion and excitement in his portrayals that distinguish him, and make him memorable.

I often thought how difficult it must have been for him. Having dreamed for a time of a career in Theater, I myself turned away after 8 years or so when the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood fell upon me. It always seemed to me a sad compromise to remain engaged in local theater. But I was a kid then, and didn’t really know.

Mrs. Dadmanly, Little Manly and I traveled to Binghamton, and thoroughly enjoyed both our Speidies and Our Town. Bill did a fantastic job, of course. This is the Playhouse’s 30th Season, and they had a long history strip of 30 years of Summer, Spring and Fall Seasons, listing all the plays with numerous photographs. I was involved with four or five of the early seasons in one way or another. It was a kick to be able to point the plays out to Little Manly, who immediately wanted to know what several of them were about.

As we were waiting for Bill to come out at the end of the play, we stood next to a woman as she pointed out to her son many plays in many seasons that someone had acted in. I didn’t catch who, but as she went through the seasons, it became clear who she was talking about. I thought, “She must have been a student of Bill’s too.” Quite younger than I, I didn’t recognize her at first. It wasn’t until Bill came out, and hugged this young woman and her son, that I realized this was Bill’s daughter and grandson.

It seems to me he never changes, but of course he must.

A few years ago, my High School had a 25 year reunion, and on a whim I tracked down Bill, found his photos at the cooperative, and invited him to the afternoon picnic that was part of reunion events. I didn’t hear from him, and it was a great surprise when he came walking up the path to the picnic pavilion.

That was one of the many high points of that reunion, along with seeing my good friend Joe, Nancy all the way in from the Northwest, Penny and Cathy and Mark. And all of us were thrilled to see Bill. For those of us with whom he shared his love of theater, Bill will always be the earliest and best example of the warm remembrances that love can bring.

I think Bill’s spent more years in Theater, one way or another, than al the years I’ve lived thus far. And I don’t think he regrets the time he’s spent. I know I had to live quite a few years before I understood.

It isn’t the fame, certainly not the money, it isn’t the celebrity and pomp that draws those who share the true love. Which is fortunate, since, as in other areas of life like sports, those ends are the very rare exception, and anonymity the far more widespread reward.

Standing where I do now, Bill’s just about the luckiest man I know. He does what he loves, and he loves much, and widely, between his family, his theater, his photography, and his appreciation of the richness of this brief life. Can there be greater blessing for any one us, at any age, to be free to do that which brings such happy life to existence?

He teaches important lessons, this teacher and mentor. “Don’t give up your dreams,” and almost more importantly, “don’t limit those dreams to what you expect or want them to be when you start.” Perhaps he wished for himself a different path; perhaps this wasn’t what he expected when he started.

But I know this. He does what he loves. He shares that love with many. He has an adoring and faithful audience. He’s busy, and prolific.

The dramatic conclusion of Our Town, I think, captured the essence of what I’m trying to get a fix on in my own life. At the dramatic conclusion, the young wife and mother, just deceased, comes to this awareness:

"Good-bye Grovers Corners…. Good-bye to clocks ticking… and Mama's sunflower. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you!"

And more, she cries out:

"I didn’t realize…all that was going on and we never noticed?"

And one of the wiser, gone before her, answers her question:

"Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those . . . of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years."

Only to discover, usually too late, that the days fly and life grows short.

Not Bill. Not this man. He learned this lesson early I think.

So I sit in this theater as the rehearsal grinds on throughout the afternoon. The kids grow increasingly restless, and even the chaperones lose patience with the “quiet” rules, the “sit still” rules, the “you can’t eat in here” rules.

Okay, so maybe on another day I’m fed up with how wild and disrespectful these kids are, and how I can’t believe their parents can’t seem to care enough to teach them some respect, or manners. But not today. Not thinking about that Stage Manager, ushering his play and its characters around that stage.

It reminds me of the way in which George Bailey spoke of the patrons of the old Savings and Loan. “They’re the ones, by the way, who do most of the living and working and dying around here.”

And so they are. So are we all. The days grow short, and there’s so much more we have to do. I firmly believe that God has given us this world, this life, as a unique opportunity for each one of us to experience a Love that surpasses all other love.

Do we all realize Who is the author and finisher of faith? No, any more than the many of us who fail to understand other important lessons. I think that, if we were to imagine how our Creator feels about his creation, there would be few better examples than that love the artist feels towards his art.

I thank God today for this day, and pray I have another, that I too might better reflect that love that first He loved towards us. There’s no time to waste.

---

Our Town Quotations thanks to Michael Cummings, from material posted at his Study Guides website.)




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