Monday, April 2, 2012

A Flair for the Dramatic

Mother grew up in dusty towns that are now unrecognizable. The home of her grandmother to whom she fled each weekend by train, riding alone, was Broken Arrow; the home of her high school alma mater is Coweta. Both are now extensions of Tulsa as that big city sprawls in all directions. Asphalt, multi-lane roads now carry commuters to and from work with Coweta and Broken Arrow serving more as bedroom communities than as thriving, business-oriented ones.

But these little towns did not lack a movie screen, and Mother saw as many as she could. Even after she married and had begun her family, she still saw the latest films. She attended an afternoon showing, then returned home to care for me while Dad saw the same show. They couldn’t sit holding hands, as I like to do with my husband, but they could discuss what they’d seen over dinner later.

As a girl, Mother studied elocution in addition to piano. When last she asked me to help her organize her papers, she still had the yellowed, brittle pages of poems, plays, and prose that she had learned to read with precision and flair. Thus, it was only natural that Mother encouraged her own children to pursue all things dramatic.

One of my early memories is of calling the Jerry Lewis telethon in behalf of children afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy. My friends and I wished to donate the money we’d earned by “putting on a show” just like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in “Babes in Arms” (1939). We used the raised concrete-block patio that Dad built as our stage and invited neighbors to attend for the low, low price of five cents. They applauded as we sang, danced, and tumbled.

Any comedian, actor, and singer will tell you that laughter and applause are addictive so it’s only natural that I enrolled in Drama or Speech throughout junior high and high school, starring in several plays, always to much acclaim--well, at least, that’s how I remember it. I learned to plumb the depths of emotions as the widow in All the Way Home and score laughs in Light Up the Sky.

In college, speech and drama were the courses I chose for a minor field of study. As a freshman and sophomore, I followed the debate team across the country from our home campus in Iowa, west to Montana and south to Memphis. I orated, extemporized, and reasoned, then as a junior and senior, I devoted myself to drama, playing tragic Hecuba in Sartre’s The Trojan Women and scoring laughs as Veta Louise Simmons, the long-suffering sister of Elwood P. Dowd and acquaintance of Harvey, a giant, invisible rabbit.

I earned my share of critics when I agreed to play Olivia in a rock version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The director was a notorious drunk who exercised absolutely no control over the seniors portraying Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. Trust me, the show was crude, rude and socially unacceptable in many places. But, in other roles, including three during one summer in a dinner theater, I earned my share of praise.

Lines from plays in which I performed or studied closely bubble up and out of my mouth unbidden. Once I told a student who had saved me from plopping onto my behind as I knelt beside her desk to help her, “ Thank you; I depend upon the kindness of strangers.” My student was not fluent in Blanche DuBois; in fact, no one in that freshman composition class knew the dismal world of Tennessee Williams so my line fell like the proverbial lead balloon. That didn’t stop me though. I continue to find phrases and lines useful in making my points.

Perhaps this is why my daughter, from about age 12 through 19, occasionally asked, “Who talks like you?!” My mother, that’s who, and I am just like her.