The Rehearsalby Sarah Willis
An engaging new novel about love, on-stage and off
In the spring of 1971, Will Bartlett, an ambitious director at a small resident theatre, has an idea: he will invite his cast of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to his country farm for a month, giving them the opportunity of "becoming" their characters, and enhancing the realistic atmosphere of his/i>/p>/b>
An engaging new novel about love, on-stage and off
In the spring of 1971, Will Bartlett, an ambitious director at a small resident theatre, has an idea: he will invite his cast of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men to his country farm for a month, giving them the opportunity of "becoming" their characters, and enhancing the realistic atmosphere of his next production. Will's family grudgingly agrees to his sudden change of plan, but events and personalities rapidly spiral out of his control. The cast of nine men and one woman is already unevenly balanced, but the situation is made even worse when Melinda--the woman playing the part of Curley's Wife--fails to turn up at the farm as expected. Will's wife, Myra, takes the role, although she has not been on stage since their daughter, Beth, was born. Sixteen-year-old Beth is furious, having already decided that the part should be hers. When the self-obsessed Will remains oblivious to the problems between Myra and Beth, as well as the increasing distance between himself and his wife, Myra finds herself looking at her husband's best friend in a new light. The tension grows between members of Will's family, and the other actors find themselves drawn into a complex tangle of relationships, leading them to question not only how well they know each other, but also how well they know themselves.
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As the station wagon reaches the crest of the hill, Will Bartlett catches sight of the house and the barn. He twitches, a blink moving through his body; suddenly he sees an answer to what's been nagging at him for months, just as if someone has been tapping on his shoulder and finally decides to shout in his ear. He's glad no other cars are on this narrow dirt road; his hands are a bit unsteady as an image overlays the barn: a set, an interior with bunks, wooden crates, and the scattered belongings of working men. "Damn!" he says.
"What now?" Myra looks at him from the passenger seat, but he doesn't glance her way. It's enough to have to concentrate on the road; there are two kids asleep in the backseat, and potholes the size of craters.
"I have an idea," he says, not so much to Myra as to himself, to move thoughts into action, test the sound of beginnings.
Myra shakes her head, and Will knows she is tired of his ideas, in spite of their merit. Just last night he wanted Myra and the kids to sit with him on the front porch with their eyes closed, staying silent for an hour, absorbing the sounds and scents of the city; memorizing them like a sonnet. Then tonight they would do the same thing here, sitting on a blanket in the front field; compare the busy street in Pittsburgh to the open expanse of their farm in Chautauqua. He loves doing stuff like this. The kids thought it was a great idea for about ten minutes.Myra had gone inside before they even started. She said she had to finish packing.
But most people do what Will asks them to. It's his voice: a commanding voice. All the reviews mention his voiceit gets old, or so he says. Secretly, he's worried that someday his voice might not get mentioned, and then what would that mean?
"Do I want to know about this idea?" Myra asks.
"It'll wait." He turns onto the pebbled lane bordered on each side by a soggy drainage ditch and overgrown weeds. About a quarter mile up, just before it reaches the house, the lane curves to the left and heads over to the barn. The truck with the props and furniture can get to the barn easily, Will thinks, already imagining the men unloading it. He'll have to make some phone calls tonight. He'll need the entire cast to make this work. They'll come, once he explains things; the actors enjoy being together; they are, in many ways, one big family. As he steps out of the car, he knocks a fist three times against the fake-wood paneling. It can't hurt.
The car stopping has woken Beth, who nudges Mac. Myra had laughed when, eighteen years ago, Will had told her about his plan to have a boy and a girl named Mac and Beth. Two years later, married and pregnant, she had gone along with naming their first child Beth. Eight years later, when they had a son, she hadn't thought the idea so funny. They had compromised on James MacArthur Bartlett, but everyone calls him Mac, and Will wonders if the boy even knows his first name. Mac isn't the quickest of kids. Sometimes he seems to be living on another planet altogether. It doesn't bother Will one bit. Eccentric is a word he's quite proud of.
"Are we there yet?" Mac asks.
"No, stupid," Beth says, rolling her eyes. "It's another house just like ours."
"Leave him alone, Beth," Myra says, with the same agitated tone Will has heard her use a hundred times when talking to Beth. Will wonders if Myra knows what her voice gives away. Maybe that's what makes Beth so angry all the time. Or maybe Beth's anger is what makes Myra so tense. The chicken or the egg? Even as he considers the conversation he might have with Myra, he discards it, knowing where it will go. She'll just tell him that he's not home enough to know what he's talking about.
He's not home enough, that's true. But he knows what he's talking about.
Still, it's easier just to do the things he needs to do. Like unpacking the car. Saving the theatre.
Unpacking will take some time. Myra can pack a car like no one else, filling every nook and cranny with the things they will need for the next three and a half months. Each spring they do this. The Mill Street Theatre in Pittsburgh closes in mid-May, and the summer season at the Chautauqua Institutionwhere The Mill Street Theatre performs eight of twelve plays from the past seasondoesn't start until July. Will and Myra withdraw the kids early from school and move to their summer house, a ten-minute drive from popular Lake Chautauqua and the Institution. For six weeks Will can read plays, fix up the house, or just do nothing, although doing nothing is never as much fun as it sounds and usually ends up making him nervous as hell.
When they were young, the kids hadn't minded this back-and-forth living, but Mac, eight now, couldn't join the softball team, and dragging Beth, a stubborn sixteen-year-old, away from her crowd had been no mean feat. Luckily, she wanted to be an actress, and Will's carrot this year was to offer her a job with the company: property assistant, with pay. He'd even heard her bragging about it to a friend. The thing is, even though he's six foot four, sometimes the kids make him feel small, or even worse, like an old log in their way as they walk down some path he didn't even notice them turning on to. Then again, there are timeslike Beth bragging about her job at the theatre, or the sight of Mac's tumbleweed head of hair bobbing up and down as he plays some imaginary gamethat make Will feel as though it doesn't matter how big he is, there just isn't room enough inside him for all his love. When he feels like that, he gets anxious. The gods will know his weakness. Having children is like having fate take hostage of his heart.
As the kids climb out of the car, Will walks over to the barn. He has to be sure it can be what he needs it to be: a place to rework Of Mice and Men. To live it. He's been the artistic director of the summer theatre for twenty years. Back in Pittsburgh, he's a director and an actor, but here at Chautauqua, he's the director. It's his baby. And the rumors he's been hearing lately are that this might be their last season here, that the Chautauqua Institution might not ask them back after the summer of '71. The elderly patrons and rich vacationers want something new. He's heard they want opera instead. Opera! My god! So he has to create a play so powerful that the Chautauqua Institution, and The Mill Street Theatre, will understand what only a resident company is capable of accomplishing. The true give-and-take of actors who work together year in and year out. The board of The Mill Street Theatre will not be happy if they lose their summer revenue. They have already been discussing laying off the actors, bringing in traveling productions of Broadway plays, an occasional big name like Tony Roberts. Who the hell is Tony Roberts? It's now or never. Will stands in front of the weather-beaten barnwhich was once red but is now the color of splinters, its doors propped open with cinder blocksand crosses his fingers. He walks inside.
There is a small narrow room in the front of the barn. Will nods, thinking this room will be just right for Nate Johnson, who plays Crooks, the black stable hand. In the play, Crooks is not allowed in the bunkhouse, which will be the main part of the barn. They should stick to that rule while living the play, Will thinks, although Nate might not like that. Being the only black actor in the company is already enough of a division. But that is the reality of Of Mice and Men. They'd better go for it all the way.
Passing through the narrow front room, Will enters the interior of the barn: a huge open area with a dirt floor, six square posts, and a rusty rake. All around is the heady smell of mold and damp wood. Pale thin mushrooms sprout in dark corners. At least they won't have to clear out a lot of old junk. They leave the barn empty since vandals or rot would destroy anything left behind. The kids use it as a playhouse sometimes, bringing in chairs and tables and putting on skits that go on far too long. Will always itches to show them how to make their skits tighter, but Myra says she'll kill him if he does, and he understands. He probably expects too much from them. Still ...
But now the barn will be put to good use. There was something deadening about performing Of Mice and Men last October inside the concrete walls of the theatre. All along he felt something was missing. In this barn they can take Of Mice and Men furtherwhere, he isn't quite sure, but finding out will be half the fun.
It can't hurt to try.
Beth's father comes out of the barn, rubbing his hands together and nodding. Suddenly he shouts, "Hot damn!" A crow barks and flies from the dead tree near the house. The crow is the same color as her father's hair, a glossy black so dark it has a purple sheen to it. For the first time, Beth wonders if her father dyes his hair. She knows he's pretty old, fiftysomething, although he'll never say; it's like a family secret or something, a family secret even she can't know. So typical. But the idea he might dye his hair makes her feel embarrassed, and she doesn't like that feeling. He's the coolest dad she knows. He's a director, and an actor, and she's going to be an actress, and he'll direct her, and she'll be great and maybe famous. Only, so far, he hasn't let her act in anything, even though he's hired other kids for children's roles. He says it would show favoritism if he used her. He says she has to be a very great actress first, so people won't make catty comments. But Beth has been taking acting classes on Saturdays since she was six and spent years going to the theatre after school to watch the rehearsals. She's listened to her father's every word, played along with all his weird exercises, memorized monologues, gone to hundreds of performances, and put on dozens of skits. And now that she's ready, he just hasn't noticed.
She'll be seventeen next April. The world seems both huge and belonging to her. If someone would just give her the key.
Beth watches her father study the barn and knows he's up to something. She imagines the barn becoming whatever he needs it to be, widening or shrinking, growing stronger, straighter, even proud. Her father can do anything, and she's going to be part of it.
Mac watches his dad, who's looking at the barn and swearing. Mac thinks his dad's happy now, but then why's he swearing? It's hard to tell when his dad is mad, or happy, or excited, because all those times, he yells and moves his arms around like he's drawing in the air. Mac's friends are all scared of his dad. Mac's not really scared of him, but he does sometimes feel all his muscles pull in on him and get tight when his dad gets excited, or mad, or happy. Those times, Mac's not sure what his dad will want him to do. Sometimes when his dad gets ideas, he has Mac do strange things, like everybody has to walk around with a frown to see if that makes them mad, or walk around with a smile to see if that makes them happy, or talk with their face and no words, which Mac liked but Beth hated and said was stupid. But sometimes Mac's dad gets ideas and never tells Mac what they are, like painting the living room back home blue, and drawing leaves on the walls, and Mac has to figure out what's going on.
Lately, his dad has been telling him he's going to be a great actor someday. Mac's not sure he likes that idea at all.
Mac carries his pillow to the house and looks over his shoulder to see if his dad is going to call for him, tell him to walk like a monkey or talk like a birdwhich Mac thinks is a good idea and might suggest it sometime, except Beth will say it's stupid. But his dad just stares at the barn and rubs his hands. Mac goes in the house and looks around. They have been coming here for five summers, and he always wonders if it might have changed while they were gone, but it's just like it was, and he likes that. Except for the spiders.
Will's hands are large and capable. He has built puppet theatres, fixed sink drains, and hooked together the tiny clasps on Myra's bracelet, but right now his hands move like wounded birds. At the beginning of each sentence they rise chest high, flutter, and drop. It's because they have no audience. Myra won't look at him. Won't answer him. He never imagined it was going to be this difficult to convince her, or that she would get so mad. He's completely unprepared for this fight. He's already said everything he can think of, so he begins to repeat himself.
"So the guys who play the ranch hands, and George and Lennie, will live right in the barn. Sleep on the bunks. The rest can stay in the house." Will follows Myra with his eyes as she unpacks a suitcase and places the folded clothes in the oak bureau they found on the side of the road last year. Myra had refinished it. She is good with her hands, too, but right now her hands are smoothing out the clothes a little too fastidiously. Will wants to grab those carefully folded socks and toss them across the room. He needs to get going. Make those calls.
"Beth and Mac can share Mac's room. And you and Melinda can sleep in Beth's room. You like her. It'd be like camp. Norton and Greg can sleep in our room, and I'll sleep on the couch."
Myra's lips tighten, and she picks up the empty suitcase to carry it to the hall closet. He steps in front of the door to block her way.
"It could be our last chance.... If the Institution doesn't ask us back, it will give the Mill Street board the excuse they need to send us packing. It's not just the summer season at risk here. You know that. Resident companies are falling right and left. Their boards think Broadway actors will bring in the bucks. By the time they realize that doesn't work, it will be too late! Think about it. We'll lose our livelihood to a trend. Frankly, Myra, I'm scared. We need to get their attention."
"How will they bathe?" Myra says, turning her face up, glaring at him. "Where the hell will everyone brush their teeth? Go to the bathroom? Are you going to hand out numbers? Who's going to feed them? The cook is offstage! Do I get that role? Oh, that'll be just great. The final stab. I get to be the unnamed, unseen cook. No problem memorizing my lines! Make it easy on you, huh? And whatever makes you think I like Melinda? And what about Frank's wife? Where will she stay? You haven't thought this out. You want to take a flying leap into the wild blue yonder, and you expect me to close my eyes, hold your hand, and jump?"
"Yes," he says without thinking, then, "Kathryn won't be coming with Frank. She's going to stay with her mother in Texas. We'll build an outhouse, maybe a cabin. We'll need some kind of hard work. We can't ranch, but something to bring us closer to the play, the characters ..."
He takes the suitcase from her and puts it on the floor, then grabs her hands and kisses them. "I've done crazy things before. Romeo and Juliet in slang before anyone else tried it. You thought I was nuts, but it got great reviews! And I asked you out the day I met you, and even though you thought I was strange, you agreed to go out with me, and that turned out all right, didn't it?"
"This is different, Will. This is"
Lowering his voice, speaking as softly as he can, Will looks Myra in the eyes. "This is my livelihood, Myra. It's all I know how to do. It's how I support this family. Please let me do it as best I can, for a little while longer."
"Oh, hell," Myra says. "Really, Will ..."
Will knows he's won by the tone of her voice. She's not angry now, just resigned. He avoids smiling. Don't blow it now, he tells himself. "I promise we'll do all the cooking, and we'll clean up after ourselves."
Myra nods once, but her jaw is tight. Will is torn between pulling her close for a hug and dashing downstairs to the phone. He hugs her, but she stays rigid in his arms. "It'll work. You'll see."
"I don't see. And I don't see where I fit into this plan either, Will."
He doesn't have an answer for that, so he just holds her until she shrugs out of his embrace.
Myra sang her way through school: in the Meadville High School choir, and on the Meadville High School stage, she sang her heart out. In her senior year she played the lead, Gale Joy, in Best Foot Forward. In college she played Julie in Carousel and Laurey in Oklahoma! She sang in summer stock for two years before joining The Mill Street Theatre; they had decided to do more musicals that year. They produced South Pacific first and brought in a "name" from Broadway to play Nellie. But for the next musical they couldn't: afford a "name," so Myra got the part of Fiona in Brigadoon. The audience loved her. The local paper assumed she was from Broadway, too, and said they hoped she'd come back for another role. Myra bought three dozen papers and mailed the reviews with her Christmas cards to everyone she knew.
Myra met Will at the theatre, and they were married two years later. A year after that, at four months' pregnant, Myra quit acting. It wasn't actually discussed as a choice, just discussed. When Beth was five, The Mill Street Theatre decided to do Show Boat, and at Will's suggestion, Myra auditioned and got the leading role of Kim. But Myra was scared. She hadn't been on the stage for almost six years. From the first rehearsal to the last dress rehearsal, she felt butterflies in her stomach. Each time she stepped onto the stage it felt like her heart might stop beating. Then, too soon, it was opening night.
That night, on cue, she stepped out onto the stage, looked out at the audience, and panic gripped her throat. To this day she can remember the trickle of sweat running down her cold, clammy skin. She stood for an eternity as everyone stared, as actors and audience went from anticipation to worry to whispers. She found she could move but not speak (or sing), so she walked off the stage. Three feet into the wings her legs quit working, and she tripped and fell into the ropes, banging her shin hard against a light. The pain was nothing. She was filled to bursting with a knowledge as hot and bright as any spotlight: she would never act again.
Everyone was kind. The understudy was dressed in less than five minutes. They were nice enough not to insist she take off her costume right there in the wings. The replacement wore something else until the next act. Will was supportive. Understanding. He said he'd heard of it happening to other actors. He didn't name names.
From that day on, Myra hated some part of herself. Some days it was a big part, like her heart, some days only a small part, hardly noticed, like a kidney or a lung.
Will still loved her. Forgave her. Almost forgot about it. He had a short affair a few years later. It lasted only months.
But Myra still sings. She sings when she is alone. She loves to be alone at their summer place: the kids at camp, Will at work, and she in the backyard, hanging laundry or pruning a fruit tree, and singing; the sound of her voice in the summer air, full and vibrant as it was years ago.
As Myra unpacks the kitchen things and rinses mice droppings off the stored pots and pans, three things occur to her. First: she will not be alone for a whole month; she will not have a moment to sing. Looking out the kitchen window at the backyard, she feels a deep loss, as if something has been taken from her that sits out there, waiting, just out of reach. Already she misses the sound of her own voice.
Her second thought is: Will wants to ask the actors here, to their farm, not just because he wants to put on a production so wonderful that it will save the theatre, but because he needs the actors to fill an empty place inside him, a space that needs constant validationa place that Myra believed she once filled, but no longer does.
Which leads directly to her next thought. The theatre, which she has left behind (although she sees plays, talks about plays, invites actors over for dinner, goes to opening night parties; still, she has left behind her vision of ever being on the stage again, left behind, she thinks, the pain of failure), is moving in with her, and her husband has invited it in her door. A vision flashes through her mind. She sees herself in an airplane, looking out at the bright, blue, perfect sky, a passenger who was once a pilot. Where the hell is she going?
The water suddenly turns scalding, and Myra pulls back her hand, almost breaking the plate on the steel sink. Someone must have flushed the toilet. That will happen often in the next month. She will have to be careful.
Beth is dying to know what is going on. As she comes downstairs, she can hear her mom banging pots and pans around in the kitchen, which means she's pissed, probably at her dad and his new idea. He's standing over by the phone going through his big tan briefcase with a scowl on his face. Any minute now her mom's going to yell for Beth and tell her to scrub the floor or something. It always goes like that. Her mom gets pissed at her dad, so she takes it out on Beth, which pisses Beth off so much she'll do something like trip Mac, who never gets picked on `cause he's so little, and Beth's mom will get really pissed at Beth, and Beth will get really pissed at her mom, and they'll have some big fightlike the time her mom told Beth she was a thorn in her side, and Beth told her mom to get a lifeso that now when Beth sees her dad doing something that will piss off her mom, Beth just takes a shortcut and gets pissed at her mom. She kind of knows she should get pissed at her dad, who always starts this whole thing with his crazy ideas, but the idea of getting pissed at her dad makes her nervous. Also, she needs to be nice to her dad so he'll put her in a play.
"Damn it!" Orange scripts and yellow legal pads spew out of her dad's briefcase and fall onto the living-room floor.
"Do you need some help, Dad?" she asks softly, knowing sometimes it's not a good idea to interrupt him.
"My black phone book. It was in here. Goddamn it, I need it." He doesn't usually swear in front of heractually, he does, but only when he's too occupied to even realize she's there, like now.
"You left it on the kitchen counter in Pittsburgh, and"
"What?" He straightens up so quickly, the briefcase falls onto the floor, spitting the rest of the papers out in one solid heap as if throwing them all up. Beth knows how that feels. When her dad gets this mad it always makes her sick to her stomach. She hurries up with what she was saying.
"And I picked it up. It's in the box with the mail we brought."
His face changes from anger to gratitude so fast, it makes Beth dizzy. "That's my girl! Can you get it for me?"
"Sure." It's only in the kitchen. She's back in less than a minute. He claps, like he's applauding her. She bows.
"You're always there for me, you know that, don't you, Pumpkin?" He takes the thick black book from her and starts flipping through it.
He hasn't called her Pumpkin in a long time, which is okay, since she's really too old to be called by a childhood name, but she doesn't mind it so much this time. "What are you doing? You seem pretty excited."
He stops flipping the pages and looks at her for a while, obviously trying to decide if he should confide in her. She tilts her head sideways with the look that says, I'm interested, please tell me. She's seen it done in the movies, and she's practiced it in the mirror. It works real well with boys. Finally he nods.
"Yes," he says. "You could be a big help, actually." He glances toward the kitchen, where they can both hear her mother banging the cupboard doors. "I might need an ally on this one, until it gets going. She'll see I'm right, eventually." This last part is said to himself, but since he says everything loudly, that never really works. Beth's heard him say all sorts of things he didn't know she could hear. He talks to himself as he paces in the living room back in Pittsburgh. Once she heard him say, "The woman needs a good fuck." She thinks he was talking about a character. He usually is.
Excerpted from The Rehearsal by Sarah Willis. Copyright © 2001 by Sarah Willis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
WALKING OUT ON THE BOYS
By FRANCES K. CONLEY, M.D.
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX
Copyright © 1998 Frances K. Conley. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Sarah Willis is a Pushcart Prize nominee and is the author of Some Things That Stay (FSG, 2000), winner of the Book-of-the-Month-Club's Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction. She lives with her two children in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
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