The Third Table

a. More

a: More

It’s still hard to believe that I was able to overcome my shyness, both as a polio victim and a mental patient, enough to act on stage in a theatrical setting which approximated outside-the-walls community theater. Not wearing my glasses was a big help. And Jayne’s instincts, in casting and in direction, were superb. The drama group was never more, nor less to Jayne than the Play, and her ambition rubbed off.

My first and last performances for Jayne were given outside Riggs. In the role of Gus in Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter, with Ivan as Ben, staged at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Pittsfield, I actually won some sort of prize, but this was typecasting at its most successful. The cowering, inarticulate straight-man Ben was a character inhabited largely by my own stage-fright. I tried to sound cockney, while Ivan couldn’t resist a dash of Mayfair–imagine Peter O’Toole and Benny Hill wannabees.

My second role, Hebble Tyson in The Lady’s Not for Burning, gave me a slight and secure costume role and a several blusterous lines, enabling me to puff around the stage like a windmill gone awry. Mostly I remember Mary as Jennet Jourdemaine, whom I fell in love with, in my fashion. Better at remembering my cues than my lines, I would in later years recite my favorite of her lines both to her, whom it slightly annoyed, and to prospective seductees, whom it usefully dazzled:

I am interested in my feelings; I seem to need a part in the play of time; if not, then sad was my Mother’s pain, sad my breath, sad the articulation of my bones, woefully, woefully sad my alacritous web of nerves, to be shaped and sharpened into such tendrils of anticipation only to feed the swamp of space. What is deep as love is deep, I’ll have deeply; what is good as love is good, I’ll have well. Then, if time and space have any purpose, I shall belong to it. The least we can do is fill the curled shell of the world with human deep-sea sound and hold it to the ear of God, until he has appetite to taste our salt sorrow on his lips.

Lady was the first play in which I saw what Jayne could really do. I watched it backstage every night, tears in my eyes, afloat in its frail, luminous unity.

Despite the tiny theater and our often knowing many in the audience, there could be a real suspension of disbelief. Although we were  billed as the Austen Riggs Players, the plays were presented and reviewed without reference to a hospital context, and there may have been members of the audience who didn’t know. Nothing in our performances would have given us away; there was never a time when the show did not go on, and the flubs when they occurred were  easily missed. (Norman Simpson, famous for inventing lines, made up a different set every night in The Imaginary Invalid; “What for bile and bad odorum, boils of every categorum?” became one night, “What for piles and cornucopia, and incipient Lifebuoy Soapia?” This is easily remembered because I, seated center on a round stage, had to listen to Norman doing this every night without breaking up. It helped make me convincingly irascible).

After Dumbwaiter and doing props for A Thousand Clowns I was cast in multiple small roles in Becket. It was a Summer production, and it was hot every night. Ron sweated and spat in the role of the King, making it sometimes hard to share a stage with him. And his angst was palpable — he was more serious about his acting than I was, and sometimes his laborious searches to find his motivation dragged out rehearsals well into the night. But there was no doubt that he was becoming a good actor. He retrieved emotion from deep inside his psyche and put it to very effective use, a thing I only rarely achieved. Ron wasn’t afraid to discover and parade himself, but I was. Watching Ron learning his craft, or Beth sweating it out, often with hysterics, in the lighting booth, made me aware that they were learning more, getting more from the experience than I was. And in watching Ron and Beth and others becoming more professional it began to seem possible that they — and by extension I — might have a new shot at careers.

Jayne next cast me as Norfolk in A Man for All Seasons. I had tried out for Sir Thomas More, but the part went to Skye, who was certainly more seasoned and less burly, and I don’t think I was ready for the role. Because the play excited me, and I could imagine a setting of cold gray ogives, and because the tiny stage at the Lavender Door presented unusual problems of depth and mood, I asked to design the set. As I was quite untrained, the resulting set was overbuilt (with 4×4 timbers) and made almost impossible demands on the actors, who had to crouch into a fetal position under the eaves of the building prior to making a convincingly casual descent of the ramp. It was on three levels and did create an illusion of height and depth, though its Holbein gray had become Golden Oak, mostly because Walter Scott, who built the set, couldn’t bear to disguise all that lumber.

The next play (for Summer 1966) was Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.  I designed the set again, an angular and abstract series of levels built up from four-by-eight platforms, with a “thrust” into the audience. Jayne had to lobby hard to get the money for the platforms, but they served well for several productions and made it possible to have contemporary settings with some ingenuity.

The Imaginary Invalid, in the Fall of 1966,  was my last show with Jayne, and in one respect it was one of her most ambitious projects, in that she decided to take us “on the road,” after our Stockbridge performances, to McLean Hospital in Belmont. I’m not sure anything like this had ever been done, and it was a trip. Jayne had picked the Molière piece partly, I think, to give me a lead part, and one which didn’t make my physical limitations too plain–I was seated throughout. . We used the new platforms to play it in the round, which when we got to MacLean (without the platforms, of course) meant playing directly on the floor in the middle of a three-sided audience. The younger, open-hospital patients like ourselves were stage left; the old guard center, and the patients with nurses (or “chasers,” as we called them) and in wheelchairs sat stage right.

We soon learned that we had  to wait three or more beats for the laughs: the first quick laughs from the left; the second, noticeably later, from the center; and finally, well into the next lines, sudden, loud laughter in unpredictable intervals from the right. Marti was the stage manager and I don’t know how she coped–there were several total power failures and a great deal of adlibbing. It was probably the worst performance we ever gave. McLean evidently was nervous about their patient population being tainted by our liberal ideas, because there wasn’t a cast party and we didn’t get to compare notes with the MacLean patients. We didn’t care. We felt like pros.

I visited Riggs from Boston in the Spring of 1967 and saw Spoon River Anthology, the last Riggs production I was to see. It seemed even better from the outside, the ensemble seemed more developed, the mood and rhythm more delicate than ever, with a Mozartean wistfulness and charm. As in all the parts of Riggs that really worked, there was partnership and respect between patients and Staff. Jayne treated us with respect and gave us autonomy–no one ever felt any condescension in that applause.

I chose my twenty-first birthday, in January 1967, as a good day to leave Riggs. I had acquired enough confidence or bravado to decide to get a life outside the walls. I still didn’t know how crazy I was and wouldn’t for another ten years, despite following Dr. Pearce to Boston for a couple more years of intermittent therapy.

If Marcus and I had ever had a rapport it was gone by the day of our last session. “It is my professional duty as your physician to give you a prognosis, and I’m afraid it’s negative…You aren’t going to make it.” After expressions of shock and disbelief–Marcus was often directive but rarely subtle — I had to take him at his word. It made me cry, which must have given him some satisfaction, and I cordially hated him for it.

For years afterward I dined out on the story, still astonished at what he had said. My revenge, when it finally came, was cold enough for any refined Italian palate: in 1977 Mary, who had seen Marcus on the West Coast, relayed his heartfelt apology. It was oddly unnourishing. His hard words had given me a challenge against which to pit my actions, and for him to say later that he had made a mistake (hadn’t he meant it?) only added contempt to my dislike.

 

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