I attended high school many years before the term “nerd” was invented, but I certainly fit the category. I was good at math and science and terrible at sports. I played oboe in the school orchestra. I was smaller than most of the other guys, and I had pimples on my face. I could count the number of my friends on one hand, and each one was as nerdy as I.
For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try out for the Senior Play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. For some inexplicable reason, I got the part of the delivery man – a small part, but a speaking part. I had two lines. That was 1956, the last time I was on stage until 1998.
What possessed me to tread the boards once more? In 1998, our daughter, Liza, had just started middle school at Sandy Spring Friends School, in Sandy Spring, Maryland. SSFS stages a “community play” every year, calling on students, faculty, staff, parents, neighbors, and virtually anyone who might be interested, to audition for roles. The play that year was Our Town. Liza had won the part of the bratty little sister (type casting, I’m sure). She talked me into volunteering to be one of the townspeople, and I agreed, as long as I didn’t have to do anything but walk on and walk off.
About three weeks before the play opened, the director called me to ask if I could fill in for a student who had to drop out. Suddenly, I was Howie Newsome, the milk man, complete with crucial lines and a New England accent. Something clicked. I was good at this. I loved doing it.
Over the next four years I was in every single SSFS community play. I played a pirate in Peter Pan, Hector Nations in Foxfire, Uncle Henry/Gatekeeper in The Wizard of Oz, and Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind. I was even called back in 2006 to play the architect, William Macy Stanton, in A Homestead Album, a play about Quakers involved in the Homestead Movement in Tennessee during the depression.
Live theater is, by its nature, unpredictable. The SSFS theater was a “black box” space: it had a backdrop, but no curtain and no stage, and it was housed in a building with metal roof that amplified the sound of anything that landed on it. Gentle rain sounded like a raging storm. Most times rain detracted from the play, but in a downpour during one performance of Our Town, my line was “Too bad about the weather. What with all the rain we’ve been havin’…” That was the only time that line got a hearty laugh.
Having been bitten by the acting bug, and being a diehard supporter of the theory of evolution, I wanted to play the William Jennings Bryan character in Inherit the Wind. There’s just something about the pomposity of such self-assured blowhards that appealed to the ham in me. I loved the part, but I could never remember all the lines in the opening courtroom scene. I was supposed to remark on the heat, ask the judge for permission to remove our suit jackets, and comment on Drummond’s (the Clarence Darrow part) red suspenders. In each of the four performances, I left out at least one of those elements, but never the same one. Thankfully, the rest of the cast was great at covering my lapses.
Dorothy’s Uncle Henry was a Kansas farmer. He wore overalls and high-top boots. Oz’s gate keeper wore green sequined slippers and a bright green suit (reportedly once worn by Willard Scott when he was Marshall of a St. Patrick’s Day parade). In the final act, there was precious little time to change costumes from the gate keeper back to Uncle Henry. On the last night’s performance, my feet had swollen and I couldn’t get my boots back on. I still had no boots on when we were called back on stage, so I went in my stocking feet. Instead of running down a ramp as the entrance required, I slid partway down and almost collided with one of the other actors. It looked stupid. In retrospect, I should have taken off my socks. Sometimes Kansas farmers go barefoot.
My favorite play was Foxfire, by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, about the disappearance of mountain culture in Appalachia. Hector exists only in his widow’s imagination, but has a lot to say about how life used to be in the mountains. Katie said that this play was hard to watch, especially the scene where Hector’s body is laid out on a table and his estranged son comes home for the funeral, as a distant church bell tolls. This was a very emotional play. The first several times I read the play, I got choked up at Hector’s soliloquy at the end of the play, when he speaks about dirt, fertilizer, and returning to the earth. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to deliver those lines, but they came out without a catch.
As primitive as that theater was, as inexperienced as we actors were, as young as the orchestra sounded, we produced moments of pure magic, when the audience was completely caught up in the emotion of the scenes we created. For me, it was the feeling of being part of creating that magic that kept me going back to auditions. And, as hokey as it sounds, I would love to tread the boards once more.