Opening night

I had trouble concentrating today. I was even more fidgety than usual: shuffling printed emails into random stacks, moving my pen from tote to desk and then dropping it on the floor, walking into rooms without remembering why. My body was jerky, projecting sympathetic butterflies from another stomach. Tonight is opening night for my son, the theater star. Tonight is opening night for mom, the anti-Mama-Rose peeking through her fingers. He is confident and seemingly unruffled. I am a wreck, not sure what to expect, not sure how I will react. He has purposely demanded that I wait, barring me from rehearsals hoping I will be surprised. All I know is that at some point he gets bludgeoned to death. My leg jitters.

I was in a play once. I was exactly my son’s age. It was a version of 12 Angry Men only we called it 12 Angry People to include girls. I was Juror #10, the bigot who rails against “those people.” It was mysterious why I was cast considering I was new to the school and stuttered. Somehow I channeled Archie Bunker enough to pass as fluent and angry. But my speech was never that effortless again. I had a tiny part in the next play, Our Town, and botched it. I could not coherently give directions to the local cemetery no matter how much I practiced. I was saved from the shepherd’s crook only because I was playing an old woman; I suspect they thought the stammer was method. But it marked the end of my career as a stage actress, and until recently, the end of my interest in live theater.

I love to watch movies. I will read all day long. But plays and musicals make me anxious. Especially when performed by amateurs. Too many things can go wrong. Forgotten lines, cracked notes, fallen backdrops, mistakes made in public, in front of an audience. All the possibilities of human error tucked inside a box, framed like a grade school diorama come to life. I anticipate the stutter stalking every word. I feel the tension that the actors must be feeling. I can’t relax because I worry for them. My vicarious leap is not for the characters but for the mortals behind the roles.

So I am nervous even when my son is not. He is his father’s son. My husband was an actor from childhood, quite accomplished in high school and college. He still performs but for this production he is behind the scenes, one of the adults in charge. The two of them have been dedicated to this project for months, hours and hours spent in rehearsal. The play is an ambitious musical with difficult arrangements and complex themes. My son is Abel of “Cain and Abel” fame. Hence the gory end that he wants to keep shrouded. He predicts that I will have an epic reaction. After all, what mother wouldn’t?

But this would assume I could let go of the curtains and the kids, that I could stop wringing my hands for my actor son in order to feel grief for Eve’s son. I would have to suspend belief in the same way I do when I try and see a 3D picture locked in a series of dots and circles. My eyes must focus differently, not on the literal, but on the emotional echo.

* * *

I am home from the musical. My son was indeed hit over the head with a rock, repeatedly, though from my angle I saw the three inches of space between his head and the prop. I plainly saw that he wasn’t hurt. Perhaps my mind would not let me believe that he could be hurt.

Although my son remained my son, there were moments when the edges of the stage did recede. I did find myself responding to a few of the performers as people within a relevant narrative outside my pragmatic world. I could let out a breath and sit back. There is something dangerous about live theater. A risk of failure eliminated by the multiple takes of film or the delete button on the computer. But when the peril looming behind a step or line does not manifest, when it all works, it is more real, more distinct than anything on page or screen. Human beings sharing a primal ritual, pretending, not pretending; finding something true in them selves that resonates true in their assumed role. I caught glimpses tonight of what my husband has always touted. I shed my role as separate, as audience, as skeptic, as neurotic and truly participated in the story.

Then, the minute Abel walked on stage, the magic flickered and my hands clenched around my program. I slipped back into mom, fretting, chewing the inside of my mouth like empathic scenery.

5 responses to “Opening night”

  1. swells says:

    But plays and musicals make me anxious. Especially when performed by amateurs. Too many things can go wrong.

    I can’t be the only one who’s instantly reminded of the This American Life episode about the amateur theatre fiasco. It just keeps going and going and going. Well worth listening to. I’m so glad your Abel had a better night on stage!!

  2. Dave says:

    It must be said: Great post!

  3. RW says:

    Just for the record – this post was an attempt to, as always, question myself and and my perceptions and not review the musical – which was wonderful and I loved.

    And Dave, I appreciate you breaking your own rules for my sake. xo

  4. Demosthenes says:

    1. This American Life is rocks, and this did remind me of that fiasco! episode.

    2. PB, your right a lot of things do go wrong on stage. Very wrong sometimes. I performed in a production of Les Miserables my sophomore year, and our true to broadway rotating stage got destroyed mid-musical by a dropped musket caught in the motor turning it. Fun stuff.

  5. Kate the Great says:

    I’m happy you’ve tried it, Ramona. I’ve done lots of theatre (high school, community) and when I talk to people about it, they say, “Oh, I could never get on stage.” When I suggest techie work (which is equally rewarding but less glamorous) they just grin sheepishly and shake their heads. You’ve tried it and found you’re not suited for it.

    I personally love it because of that Opening Night feeling. It’s a huge surge of energy that is almost tangible backstage and to everyone involved. It’s associated with showing our hard work and artistry to people, and the excitement of wanting to produce a finished, flawless product. It’s also involves that chance that a disaster could happen; after all, we’re all people with nerves and blindnesses. And tempers. I’ve seen many a silent fit happen backstage, but it’s because of those unpredictable risks that make it so exciting.