George limped over to the long dark wood table. Sitting down with obvious effort, he draped his cane over a chair, and joined the others, all considerably younger than he, in chatting about the events of the Russian day. Actually, they were in an estate in an isolated part of the Ukraine, but everyone in those long-ago days unhesitantly called their country, Russia.
“And George,” Curtis had called up to him earlier that night, from his seat in the first row, as George appeared from behind a wing, “Just remember, when you enter the stage with your nephew, to lean down on your cane the way we showed you.” No, they weren’t actually in the Ukraine, he knew. Instead, they were all sitting around the long dark wood table toward the left side (audience view) of a large stage in a Northern Virginia theater, going over the lines they’d been rehearsing now for two months. Dress rehearsal only three days away. George never understood why that last rehearsal was called “dress,” since they’d been wearing their late nineteenth century costumes for a whole week now. But he didn’t ask the others later why that was so. Despite his advanced age, he had far less acting experience than most of them, and didn’t want to appear any more clueless than necessary.
“Don’t carry it around like a golf club, “Curtis had said. You’re supposed to be in pain.” George remonstrated, not for the first time, that people using canes didn’t walk in that labored manner in real life – he’d asked a physical therapist about that, but his director pointed out that this was a dramatic production, not real life.
Between acts, Sylvana was going on and on about how they were finally liberated from their previous rehearsal space, in the small private school where she taught. Now that the prior show had vacated the premises and their new sets were up, she could prance and flounce around this enormous stage, designed to accommodate much less intimate productions than theirs. “I so wish they had dancing in this play. I just love to dance,” Sylvana announced to George as they went backstage before the first act; “I tried out for Cabaret,” the show before theirs, “But they seemed to want only teeny-boppers?” Flamboyant and indeed bosomy she was, George thought, but not really very sexy. She reminded him of his dear departed mother. Not really his type. He preferred more delicate, softer, and definitely thinner lasses.
Waiting backstage to go on, George recalled again his audition for this play, one which Chekhov had termed a comedy – some comedy, only one person died, by a self-inflicted wound offstage! George had delivered a monologue he’d written himself, about filling the gaping hole within all of us. Filling it with drugs, alcohol, sex, magic, religion – anything we could think of to keep us from being lonely, or at least to soften the corrosive effects of loneliness. He’d added, at the end of his masterful spiel, a line in flawed Russian – Do sbeedanya. Schastlevovo putee – wishing the director and his colleagues a good journey home. It made Curtis, who undoubtedly knew no Russian, laugh. Maybe that little fillip had done the trick, and George didn’t even have to dye
his hair this time to get the part. Just let his white hair, top and facial, grow unshorn for three months.
But the caustic young director made it clear, not infrequently, that he had second, and third, and even more thoughts, about George in that part of the dying Russian, who’d served 28 years in the Department of Justice, enough to buy this large estate, but never achieved any of his real dreams. During the third week of rehearsals, Curtis had scolded George, in front of most of the cast, for muffing his lines – stumbling over a sentence or two, as all actors do on occasion. Curtis said, rather patronizingly, that George didn’t have respect for his fellow actors, interfering with their ability to perform their roles smoothly.
George was sure that the young director thought him too old and feeble to survive until showtime. After that, he silently practiced his many lines while peddling his exercycle at the gym, or sotto voce when, sometimes after rehearsals, he walked Kaiser at night on the streets near his home.
Vanessa was emoting out front now. The first act had introduced the play’s sweet young thing, a svelte ingenue who melodramatically recited, at length, the lines written by her boyfriend, a callow fledgling playwright. Karl, sarcastic offstage, played this moody, equally melodramatic son of Sylvana’s character. Vanessa leaped around the makeshift outdoor stage, in this short play within a play, waving her scarves around. George found the girl’s reading to be stilted and oddly pitched, but as she swooped and swept to and fro night after night, George had increasingly admitted to a quiet lusting after her tall blonde radiance. She was certainly young enough to be his granddaughter, if he had a granddaughter, but still infinitely more appealing to him than the overflowing Sylvana. Maybe sex was, ultimately, the best, if not the only, way to fill that gaping abyss within us.
And, of course, in the second act, Karl’s character, the melancholy young playwright who loves Vanessa’s character, just happened to shoot a bird over the lake and gives it to his girlfriend – a symbolism George never really grasped fully. Something about the bird representing happiness and freedom, and the moody Lothario shooting it just for sport. And that’s the focus, George asked himself, of this whole damn comedy?”
“George,” said Curtis reading from his Director’s Notes after the second act, “You have too much hostility in your voice towards the doctor. You’re not supposed to sound so angry until the last act, when you’re really dying.” Inwardly redirecting that anger towards the director, George exclaimed, “Well, the good doctor was sounding rather patronizing to me when he suggested I’d lived long enough at age 60, and that I should just grin and bear it until I shuffled off this mortal coil. One advantage of being old is that you can finally speak the truth sometimes and not have to bite your tongue.” A bit winded by his longer than intended response, George sat down on an armchair near the stage lip. He noticed for the first time someone, seated next to George down in the auditorium, who wasn’t part of the stage crew. A very good-looking blond man younger than Curtis, with a bemused look on his tanned face. Maybe a Hollywood talent scout! Looking up at George with a tight smile, Curtis said, “Just hold the righteous anger, please, to the last act. It will be more effective then.”
Sylvana and Franz played the older pair of lovers. Sylvana’s character, an actress, is a narcissist who’s grossly insecure – no contradiction there, George thought. The aging actress was supposed to be stubborn, vain, stingy, and beautiful – just like the woman who played her in this ensemble – but George had some doubts about the “beautiful” part of it, as applied to Sylvana. Her younger lover, Franz’s character, is a rich, famous, and handsome novelist, supposedly a very moral individual who speechifies endlessly. Of course, later events proved he wasn’t so moral after all, but instead a mere man lusting after, and subsequently betraying, the play’s innocent ingenue – Vanessa. In his other life, Franz was a stockbroker in D.C., and his wife an actor/dancer in local plays.
George envied Franz’s ability to deliver at one point in Act Two an uninterrupted two-page monologue without missing a beat. But how boring it must be to recite that each night of the show. George was also envious that Franz had almost earned his Actors Equity card by performing several times on real legitimate stages, not this amateur community theater where the rest of them were now persevering. Franz announced he wouldn’t get any credit to his card for working in our non-Equity theater, but said he just cherished the role. How noble! thought George. Just like his character in our play.
Looking out from backstage ten minutes later, at the couple playing the estate manager and his wife, George marveled to himself that the stage was truly a magic space – a brightly lit rectangle with the darkened audience beyond. George was gratified that, although he’d discovered it late in his life, he could still walk, and gesture, and project his voice up into the balcony. It didn’t matter if his fellow thespians were mostly a bunch of shiftless egotists. It was their working together as an ensemble that mattered, as if they were in a church. Walking slowly, leaning, properly, on his cane, toward the door he would open to enter that sacred space, he heard Sylvana giggle, and saw, in the corner behind a curtain, a flash of exposed white breasts. And what looked like Franz extremely close to the giggler. The two were too engrossed to notice George.
After his turn on stage, where he sat in a wheelchair pushed by darling Vanessa, George tried, alone in the dressing room, eyes closed, to visualize again the image of Franz’s hands on Sylvana’s breasts, before the brazen hussy pulled up her dress. He’d heard that stage folk were supposed to be freer in their morals, and more generous in spreading their physical gifts around. But not very likely, in the case of the actresses, with an old geezer like him.
They were performing in a big community theater. 250 paying customers for a musical – that’s better than most off-Broadway shows. They would probably get maybe 150 customers most nights, even fewer on the weekend matinees, populated mostly by geezers (often younger than George) bused in from nearby assisted living communities. The lower ticket sales were the result of their doing a serious play. That didn’t attract the large audiences, he was told. No songs – well just one, thought George, not a toe-tapper, but he got to belt it out, a beer drinking number as he marched off-stage in Act One. No dancing either, for which George was mightily grateful, since, even before his arthritis had begun to kick in, he’d always been a graceless dancer.
One night a few weeks back, he saw and heard Vanessa in the theater parking lot, talking unhappily on her cell phone. Slamming shut the cover abruptly, she rushed over to George. “I lost my ride,” she said in a sweet semi-pout;“Would it be too much for you to take me to the Metro, so I can get home? When George asked where she lived, and found out it was in DC, he offered to drive her there, “It’s late,” he said, trying to sound chivalrous; “The trains run very seldom now, and I can drive you into DC almost as quickly as I can take you to the Metro.” Thoughts of dancing scarves whirled in his head, as he pictured her inviting him up to her apartment to watch her practice her swooping movements with abandon. In his car, Vanessa proceeded immediately to talk about her boyfriend, who’d stood her up, and went on and on about him, and them to the point that, by the time they arrived at her home, George’s vivid fantasies had almost completely evaporated. As she got out of his car, she turned to him,“You’re really sweet, George, she said as she stood by the automobile; “Thanks again.” She turned to walk to her door, and just before reaching it, turned again, said, “And I’m sorry Curtis keeps ragging you that way. Directors can be so mean,” and went inside.
Sitting again in his wheel chair during the last act, now at last permitted to impersonate a really old curmudgeon – sixty years old according to the script, as compared to George’s actual 75, and slumped over as if comatose, he peered through slitted eyes at the empty theater as the other actors prattled on about playing some kind of Russian bingo, imagining his triumphal bow during the opening night curtain calls that weekend. Maybe, as they said in the song, stealing that extra bow.
For several prior auditions, he’d dyed his hair a light brown, leaving some of his natural grey at the temples – to give, hopefully, the illusion he was the right man to play a 55-year old would-be lover of a woman 20 years his junior. One director a few years earlier said he’d read his lines well, actually very well, but just didn’t fit the director’s image of what the character entailed. George surmised, driving home from that audition, that the director was just too blinkered to see the romance welling up from within his old soul. Or wherever romance wells up from. After two more complimentary but polite rejections after still two more auditions – such is the lot of most performers, George had finally struck oil in Russia.
Now, five weeks after his public scolding, he had survived, and was able, he thought, to carry his weight admirably with this ensemble of strutting prima donnas. So screw Curtis! At this point in the fourth act, George closed his eyes even tighter, as previously directed by Curtis, and slumped down even further in his wheelchair. While the others continued to drone on about their bingo cards, George thought back to his labeling Sylvana as a narcissist. He realized at that moment that it was all about ego for all of them, wasn’t it? About applause. Adulation. Why else would we actors do it? For our art? Ha!. To bring joy to our audiences? Ha again! George was absolutely sure the same was true for ballerinas, presidents, ministers, maybe even teachers, all those performers who wanted to stand up there in the spotlight, and hear the bravos and the clapping, washing over them, filling, at least for a fleeting moment, that gaping hole in all our hearts. And the audience would, of course, clap enthusiastically for young Karl, who played the moody killer of a bird, and who would, very late in the final act of this comedy, give up trying to bring new forms to Russian theater, and, instead, fatally, and offstage, shoot himself.
When they were through that night, Curtis gave his notes. He seemed to be generally pleased with their performances. Before going to the dressing rooms, George was surprised to see Curtis climbing the stairs to the stage, and striding over to him. Not another reprimand! “I brought a friend of mine tonight,” said Curtis, “An actor. Roger was quite impressed with your work. Said you really inhabited the role. I just wanted you to know that,” Curtis concluded, and quickly turned away to go out front again.
Astounded, George repeated the words in his head as, a few minutes later, he changed and removed his makeup. Looking at himself in the mirror, wild white hair and a three-inch beard, he felt that maybe he really, after a shave and a haircut, two bits, wouldn’t look all that old. He’d always thought that a kind word to someone else, even to a complete stranger, might change that person’s life forever. Maybe, it was love, after all, not sex, that filled the Grand Canyon, and helped put off for a time our fears of death.
His step was lighter as he walked to his car. They’d rehearsed later than usual that night. It was past 11. Maybe he’d stop at the drive-through window, get a hamburger with fries, something he rarely ate that late at night, because it’d give him indigestion. But then he’d be even later getting home to walk Kaiser. Maybe Carole could do it. By rights, she should do it. After all, they’d gotten a dog to keep his wife company because she’d complained about George being out late so many evenings during the week preparing for a play – even more evenings and weekends as it came closer to showtime, going, she liked to say, to his own secret space. Yes. She could certainly walk Kaiser. He raced, in an unusually good frame of mind for him, he thought, to the drive-through. Maybe he’d get a frozen vanilla yogurt too.
Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children’s stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s, The Seagull. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia.