I’m a multitasker, not in the sense that I can do two things at once but in the sense that I can’t articulate a thought without a mental interruption that I sometimes share with a confused listener. My husband says that I start every conversation in the middle. I won’t lie…it’s probably true and I don’t think it’s helping my communication skills. This makes me wonder why I agreed to direct a play after a 30 year hiatus. A successful play that became a beloved movie. A play during the time of Covid.
I lost the Covid 19 in 2020 and have so far been able to sustain the loss (Noom if you must know). Last week, which was about a month before the play opens, I had a donut for breakfast and a hot dog for lunch. While meeting with my co-director (Marla Frost O’Brien) yesterday evening I popped open one of the snack attack tubes for some faux barbecue Pringles chips. In my defense there are about 20 of the cardboard “cans” on set. We’re covering them with stickers that replicate 1980’s AquaNet hairspray cans. Other, younger people are peeling the stickers and placing them on the containers. What little hand eye coordination I ever possessed deserted me years ago.
In December when Marla proposed this co-directing project for Riverfront Playhouse, it sounded like a good idea—doable. Marla and I have directed together before and we share a similar style. Or we did. Marla has maintained the ability to express a coherent thought. I have brought my confusing, three ideas in one sentence style into the mix and it is only the talent and patience of the six actresses and Marla that have gotten us this far.
I should’ve known, right from the start, that the virus would be a factor in the production of this play. In January we had a great turnout of masked and about 60% vaccinated women at auditions. Our six actresses perfectly represent Shasta County’s response to the pandemic. Three are vaccinated and boosted, three are not. The unvaxxed ladies have had the Omicron variant. For the first 3 weeks of rehearsals we never had the full cast. This is a vigilant group so anyone, vaxxed or not, stays home after exposure or symptoms. Since this is the very contagious variant that many believe all of us will inevitably get, Marla and I have an extra layer of tension as opening night approaches.
A few days ago, as I took the stage for an ailing actress (headache and aches, oh my!), I wondered if I would end up playing one of the parts and for the first time I felt real fear. We don’t have understudies. Think about it. More people, more people who can get sick. Marla and I and our patient male stage manager have played every role at some point. In my “day” I could’ve played any of the roles; today I cannot pull off three-four of them. I don’t know if I’ll ever act again but I certainly can’t direct and act. I’m not even sure I can memorize. And this is a tough play for memorization. Everyone has a lot of lines and since the play was written by a man who clearly understood the free range nature of women’s conversations, the dialogue doesn’t always follow a logical progression. In other words, the women talk like I do. Dear God.
Maybe you aren’t familiar with community theater and don’t understand that directing means overseeing every element of the play. The director(s) design the set, approve and in our case, shop for, costumes and props, help with publicity, and cajole actresses into wearing wigs and/or painting their hair. And that list doesn’t include taping the stage floor with markers for rehearsal and getting flattened by a stage wall falling on you. Because that’s what happened to me a week ago. I wish I could say that the “flat” (the term for stage walls) was in the old style, which consisted of muslin stretched across 1×2” frames. Nowadays the flats are constructed with a 4×8’ sheet of plywood reinforced by a 2×4” frame. Let’s just say that when it smacked me on the head and shoulder, it got my attention.
The first thing I thought of was that it was a good thing I had a massage appointment the next day. There were many good things, in fact. My time in the ER was blessedly short and X-rays and a CT scan showed neither breaks or bleeds. By the next evening I was fine. In the chaos after being “flattened” (theater humor), I was surrounded by horrified set builders and Marla. What I noticed most was the self-induced pressure I felt to be okay. Thirty years ago I would’ve ditched the ice pack after 20 minutes and got back to work. (I didn’t say I was any smarter 30 years ago.) Today I have a little better understanding of the limitations of my body.
Inevitably these reflections reminded me of how the play underscores the issues of health and happiness.
“Steel Magnolias” is the only play I would’ve come out of retirement to direct. And the more time I spend with it, the more I appreciate the honesty in Robert Harling’s tribute to his sister and to the strength of women. The simple language is poignant and it exposes loss in a way that makes my throat tighten and eyes sting. I have no emotional distance from the stories of these women; every rehearsal reminds me of friends I’ve loved and friends I’ve lost. You may have seen the movie with its powerhouse cast but any good play with the immediacy of live performances is better. Our cast and crew are amazing. And Riverfront Playhouse needs the community to fill the seats and bring it out of the darkness of the pandemic. Is this a not-so-subtle suggestion that you should see the play? Sure. But it’s also a play worth seeing because it’s so funny, because the talent is stunning, and because it makes me cry at every rehearsal.