Friday, April 19, 2013

Rosa and Me

Once upon a time I was in the theater.  It all started when I was in my late thirties with four children ranging from five to eleven.  I was always looking for an escape from housewifely things and the main options for the dutiful housewife and mother -- bridge, bowling and booze -- had begun to pall.  Boredom had set in.  When two of the neighborhood men became active in the local Little Theater group, some of the other wives and I decided that this was a good thing for us, too.

In the beginning, I helped with props, eagerly volunteering my grandmother's tea service (which took all afternoon to polish) and helping with the lines.  Of course, I saw myself in a smashing leading role and bringing the audience to its feet with wild applause, but in reality, I was too chicken to try out for anything.

Fate stepped in at a New Year's Eve party where I must have seemed particularly sexy and exciting (helped along by gin, my favorite red party dress and leading everyone in dances from "Zorba the Greek.") The director of the current Little Theater production of Tennessee William's "Summer and Smoke" was there with his wife.  They had been discussing the loss of the actress cast as Rosa Gonzalez, the Moon Lake Casino tramp, and, apparently impressed with my abandoned dancing, asked if I would be interested.  In my boozy euphoria and flattered to death, I said yes.

The following day, cold sober, I realized what I had committed myself to do.  Panic set in.  Could I memorize the lines?  Could I come in on cue?  Could I come on to the leading man like a pro in front of an audience?  Could I invent a realistic dance where the scene called for it?  Could I even explain to my kids what my part was?  The list was endless.

I realized that I had to get on with it and over the next six weeks I faithfully got to rehearsals in spite of one bout with laryngitis.  I memorized lines and the play became an obsession.  I wrote to an actress friend in desperation asking for advice.  Her response was to learn my lines and treat the director like God.

In the house, everything went to hell in a hand basket.  The ironing seemed to breed in the hamper while I ignored it.  At one point, my husband complained that he had no shirts to wear.  He was distinctly underwhelmed by the whole thing.  The kids lived on without me.  Peanut butter and jelly could be slapped on bread without my complete attention and they assembled their school wardrobes themselves. 

Meals were more slapdash than usual with lots of fish sticks, hamburgers and many large cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli.  At one point a rather spacey neighbor offered to help with the Spanish dance but I turned her down, diplomatically, I hope.

As D-Day drew near, I got more nervous.  I was one of the first characters on stage.  Could I saunter sexily without tripping?  One scene called for me to scream.  I found out that I had no scream.  Genetics or something.  I had to yell movingly instead.  At the dress rehearsal, I heard the director in the front row call to someone that I should be more padded out in front.  That same someone answered "She already has been."  Buxom I was not.

I had my hair done in what I thought was a fetching 1919 style only to be told later by my mother (who had been seventeen in 1919) that no one wore their hair like that.  I did get to sing offstage for the leading lady and my Spanish did, indeed, come in handy in the few lines that called for it.

The big night came and everything seemed to fall in place.  I sauntered across the stage with aplomb, managed a passable Spanish dance, kissed the leading man soundly and remembered all my lines.  My mother later praised my performance but said that I didn't really look like a prostitute.  (How would she know?)

We were a real success and repeated the play the next night to another full house.  The reviewer for the county papers gave us an excellent write-up and I received a mention as well.

It was all over too quickly.  The set was struck and we said goodbye to each other.  Tempting as it was after such a success, I never tried out again.  I realized that my family wouldn't be as patient the next time.  Later when the film came out, I saw it and thought it would be great if I could get together with Rita Moreno and discuss our interpretations of Rosa Gonzales.  I never got to.

(Sarah's memory is faulty here, recalling her children's ages as "five to eleven," which would date this staging to 1964 or 1965. According to the March 10, 1962 edition of the Montgomery Sentinel, the play was performed on March 9, 10 and 11, 1962, meaning her children's ages would have ranged from nearly-three to nine. The photo and the review are from The Sentinel.- SFS)


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