Letters to Holly

Thursday, December 7

Day Four: Talking It Through

This evening is a full Act Two run-through, and everyone in the act is supposed to be there. We are joined by the child actors for their brief appearance. The Gooper kids are to sing happy birthday to Big Daddy and follow that with a little crap ditty called Skinamrinka-Dinka-Dink. You've never heard a more interminable song made up of twenty words. The Mae actress (and I'll have to talk later about my concern about her) leads the kids through the songs, and she's serving two roles here. First, she's serving as a good kid handler for the show, and second, she's bonding with them so they'll like her when she's in character. I stay away for two reasons. First, Gooper hates his children, and second, I hate children. I call this Method Living.

And not 30 seconds after the kids regale us with this, Big Daddy starts goading Brick. Brick broke his foot the night before by jumping hurdles at his old high school. Daddy, in order to see if his son has any interest in women, asks if he were instead fucking a woman on that track. And he's throwing around the words "poontang" and "fuck." This is the actor who's already months ahead of us in his performance, and he's roaring on all cylinders. And the kids are sitting right next to him. And their eyes are getting big. Leslie the Director wisely excuses the kids for the night, and again one wonders if the parents prepared these kids at all for what they will hear for the next months. I say we get the kids acclimated to it. But then, I refer you to my earlier comments about children. Anyway, they leave.

We get into Act Two, and we occasionally stop to comment on the character or a particular lines. This isn't common in my theatre experience. We're all offering notions about why something occurs the way it does and when. We spend a long time, maybe 20 minutes, piecing together the web of deceit involving Daddy's diagnosis. Who knows the truth, how do they know, how did they keep Daddy and Mama out of the loop, how is the family doctor involved, and how did they plan to reveal the information? My thought is that Gooper is the lynchpin. He wants Daddy to be clearly diagnosed so the former can start planning for the estate. Daddy has no will. Gooper wants the land. Brick's likely to get it. Gooper has the motivation and apparently the weaselly guile to steal the estate, and it's clear from Act Two that Daddy hates him and only pretends to like him. Then again, is Daddy sincere about that or is he just full of bluster on his birthday joyful at the false diagnosis? We decide he really is giddy and renewed about his life because it sets up Brick's behavior during their long father-son chat. Brick knows Daddy's dying even as the latter rails on and on (and on and on) about living life and discarding social courtesy.

What these conversations resemble is the gaming sessions of my high-school days, when role-players sat around the room and crafted their characters aloud. Imagine getting a D&D campaign with a script. It feels just like that. We're extrapolating, projecting, and connecting dots between characters and the dialogue. I always thought RPGs could be a gateway to theatre for some folks, and this kind of interaction is the direct conduit for that transition.

For instance, during the Brick-Daddy throwdown, Gooper answers a phone offstage. We heard him in the audience. His words work as a Greek chorus for Brick's revelation that he abandoned his best friend as the latter drunkenly confessed, over the phone, that he loved Brick. Because Daddy forced this out of him, Brick lets fly that Daddy is actually dying of cancer. Right after this line, Gooper peels off a "high, shrill laugh" and tells his phonemate that everything is upside down. The actor playing the doctor wonders what's going on in that phone call and asks me directly. Well, there's nothing in the script that says, but I tell him I see it as Gooper talking to his lawyer bosses. He tells Mama in Act Three that she has to act quickly on the estate because he has to go back to Tennessee to prosecute a lawsuit. Now that may be a lie to pressure her into a snap decision, but then again this could be another example of Gooper living up to one more front of pressure. It doesn't matter so much what the phone call is about so long as Gooper presents to the audience a certain tone to contrast Brick's state of mind. This is where being an English major really helps an actor.

We do this kind of mental branching all night. What does Daddy know? Why does he say certain things to Brick? Why do Maggie and Mae hate each other? Things Williams doesn't tell us. Now I don't think we have to know these things to make a good show. The usual progression for actors is to know the character intimately and then let that understanding seep out during the lines. But there's the potential with this play, and not just with Gooper, to work the opposite way: Hit each line only as it works in that specific context and allow the audience to construct the character for you. This is how I'm piecing together my role for the first two acts. There's just so little he gets to say with any chance of investing emotion until Act Three. I'm so far stuck between two possible styles for Gooper:

A) The whiny, pathetic Frank Burns type, a guy who knows everyone hates him, suspects every overheard laugh is about him, and takes glee in plotting his Master Plan to show them all. He is paranoid.

B) The Kevin Spacey American Beauty template of quiet exasperation. This guy is so calloused by life's direction that he barely exudes the strength to gets his words out. He mumbles. He blinks slowly as he sighs his surrender to social expectations. He simmers inside until he blows his stack. He is bereft of joy.

Pessimism or nihilism. Somewhere there is my Gooper.

It's a good run-through. The Brick actor is starting to salt his words with nice inflections and pauses. He's feeling it. Big Daddy, however, is dealing with a new version of the play than what he's performed before, so he can't coast through. He has new dimensions to his character, and he's discovering nuances the part hasn't had before. I have yet to think these actors will be the weak link for the show. And if an actor can't find that among a crowd, it usually means he's the weak link, so I want to make sure I bring as much to the character as is appropriate.

And I wait for Act Three. Much like Gooper does, I suppose.

Side note: We still haven't seen the guy assigned to play Reverend Tooker. At some point, the director has to recast the role. I hope. I have to work with that guy onstage.

Previous entries:
Day One
Day Two
Day Three

Picture of the Day
This European superconductor magnet will be used next year for a supercollider experiment to recreate molecules a few milliseconds after the Big Bang. Or it will create a black hole and kill us all.

In the News
The Iraq Report has, of course, polarized the pundits. Does it represent a candy-coated plan for completely withdrawal or does it offer a means of salvaging Iraq into a stable democracy? The split is not along party lines. Washington is perceived as waiting to see what Bush will do with the report coming as it does from a group of people with little actual representative power but possessing a huge cache of respect in the political world. Co-Chairman James Baker (and close ally of Bush 41) is reported to have laid into Bush after the election to prepare him for what was to come in the report. Baker may have taken the reigns from Cheney, if one believes Bush has a puppet master. But Baker has certainly ascended since November's voting, and Cheney, Rice, and of course Rumsfeld have stayed out of sight and sound.

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The Pearl Harbor survivors who gather annually say this, their 65th anniversary assembly, will be their last rendezvous. They gathered every five years and don't expect to make it to their 70th. I'm gonna go into the bathroom and cry for a little while.

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The shuttle might launch tonight. If the weather holds out. If the rockets don't fall off. NASA wants to build a moonbase, but it's unlikely they'll get the necessary funds. And a batch of Mars pictures may suggest flowing water. Or they could suggest a rockslide.

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