Image: “Juliet,” by Frankie LeFebre, photograph
Bari Lynn Hein
In this interview with fiction editor Ann Fisher, Bari Lynn Hein portrays the transformative power of the theater arts in challenging times.
On Friday afternoon, Simone saw the first sign that things were getting back to normal. Liesl and Ryan argued most of the way home from school about something absurd. Which one of them had been the first to do something or to say something or… Who cared? On any other day, Simone would have snapped within a block of the schoolyard, but today, she walked with a smile on her face because she hadn’t heard her children say much of anything all week.
When they caught up to their friends they fell silent again but glared at one another, as if to assure their mother that they were well on their way to becoming a couple of pains in the ass again. Simone had to give most of the credit to their father for helping them to cope with what had happened earlier in the week. She’d always admired his composure and ability to gain perspective, and on Tuesday, when his children cried at bedtime, he’d said something that would not have occurred to her:
“We can only control what we can control.”
He’d then proceeded to follow his own example; he gave blood, took his children to the drug store for toothbrushes and toothpaste and soap to donate to a collection coordinated by one of the neighbors, encouraged his family to attend a candlelight vigil. It had been Finn’s idea to bring Ryan and Liesl down to the lobby so they could be with other children, and to order pizza and hook up a DVD player so that the neighbors would stay together through dinnertime.
Then, facing his return to work this afternoon, he’d become unexpectedly distant and melancholy. The theaters on Broadway had been dark since the attacks and now, three days later, many were resuming performances. This would be reopening night for Brigadoon. The day after tomorrow would be closing night.
“It all seems so pointless,” he’d said. “Three performances. Why bother?”
“It might be a nice escape for the audience,” Simone had replied.
“How can I get up there and sing and dance after everything that’s happened?”
She’d had no answer for this.
Finn had shaken his head. “No one’s going to come. It’s too bad we didn’t finish up last week so we could’ve gone out on a high.”
Simone had stopped short of reminding her husband that he could not control audience attendance or the production schedule and that he should remain focused on what he could control. She’d hugged him and reminded him that he was loved.
When Simone and the kids entered the kitchen, Liesl said something to her brother that reignited the argument.
“That’s enough,” Simone said. She saw the light blinking on her answering machine and told the children they had exactly five minutes to resolve this, and not in the kitchen. “Take it somewhere else and end it,” she said. When the room became quiet, she played her messages.
The first was from the casting director of Mamma Mia, detailing the rescheduling of auditions. It seemed so long ago when she’d received news of the callback, when she’d learned that her first audition in over a decade had gone so well. It had only been ten days.
“Go for it,” Finn had said, about her intention to return to Broadway. “Brigadoon ends in less than two weeks. Maybe it’s time I take a break and watch the kids for a while.”
The emotions she’d felt upon hearing those words – the discovery that her husband still believed in her – felt distant, remote, in light of the many emotions that had consumed her in the intervening days.
The second message was from Finn.
“Hi, babe. Please call me the minute you get in. It’s very important.”
She dialed quickly.
“We need a Jean,” he said, without first saying hello.
“Kate’s afraid to cross the river into Manhattan, and her understudy has laryngitis, or else she’s doing a great job of faking laryngitis, so we have no Jean.”
“Are you asking me what I think you’re asking me?”
“You know the part. You were Jean in high school.”
“That was sixteen years ago. Seventeen years ago. I’ve forgotten all my lines. And all the lyrics.” The first part may have been true, but the lyrics to the songs had been permanently transcribed onto her brain.
“The director will announce the last-minute change, and he said you can hold your script if you need to. And Annie said she’ll work with you.”
“How much rehearsal time are we talking? Like, four hours?”
“More like three, at this point.”
Simone repeated, “Three hours?” so loudly, that Ryan and Liesl, who’d relocated their fight to the living room, abruptly shut up.
“Come on, babe,” he said. “It’ll be just like old times. You and me, up on stage together.” Why did he have to sound so irresistible?
“What about the kids?” she asked. They had wandered into the kitchen and were staring at her with wide eyes.
“Annie says they can be townspeople. We have costumes that’ll fit them.”
She gripped the receiver, her pulse throbbing all the way down to her fingertips. She thought about how sad Finn had seemed a few hours ago, and about how strong he had been for the past few days, and about how much she loved him. Someone inside her, over whom she apparently had no control, said, “Okay.”
The kids were not sure what she was agreeing to but they knew it involved them and they let out a whoop to show their support. At the other end of the line, the cast and crew of Brigadoon rejoiced with matched enthusiasm; Finn must’ve given them a thumbs-up.
Liesl and Ryan had forgotten their argument by the time they got on the elevator. In the lobby, Liesl announced that her whole family was going to “star in a Broadway show,” and Ryan said it was okay if everyone went ahead and watched tonight’s movie without them; he and his sister could watch it another time. Of course, the adults in the lobby wanted details, and the kids clamored that they wanted to come, please could they come, and while Simone was glad that her children’s excitement had been restored, the fact that her neighbors knew of her upcoming performance only served to further accelerate her heartbeat.
“We’ve really got to go,” she said, beginning to panic as she realized how much of her rehearsal time had dwindled. Then she and her children half-walked, half-ran to the Lexington Avenue Line, about five or six blocks from home. Since it was the only operational subway line south of Midtown, they had to stand, crushed together, barely able to see the window or to hear the station names as they were announced. They came up above ground about two blocks west of Times Square and, as if set off by a starting gun, sprinted toward the theater.
While they ran, questions came at Simone rapid-fire. She answered them breathlessly.
“What color will my dress be, Mommy?”
“I don’t know, Liesl.”
“Am I going to have to wear something stupid?”
“I don’t know, Ryan. I mean… no. I’m sure they’ll give you something cool to wear.”
“Can I tell them I don’t like my costume, and they’ll give me something else?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just wait and see, okay?”
“What about me? Can I pick a different color dress if I don’t like it?”
“I’m sure you guys’ll like your costumes.”
“Why is it so dark around here?”
In response to this question, Simone slowed down. For the first time, she saw the theater district in shadow. “They turned off the marquee lights out of respect for what happened Tuesday,” she said.
The children stopped and looked up, and Simone waited for them, no longer concerned with adding minutes to her rehearsal time.
The moment she entered the theater, she felt a rush of adrenaline. She could anticipate her crossover into a state that would be at once blinding and deafening and dazzling, the heightened awareness that would follow, when every painted set would become an actual village or city or hillside, when she’d hear every stroke of horsehair against string, every click of heel against floorboard or crackle of candy wrapper or breath drawn in, when she’d see every smile from the orchestra to the upper tiers.
The man who came out to hug her in the foyer was not the same man who’d left home just four hours ago. He was positively jubilant. He picked up Liesl and told her she’d be wearing a purple dress, he tousled Ryan’s hair, he kissed his wife and thanked her profusely. After uniting Jean’s last-minute understudy with Annie, the stage manager, he took his kids up to wardrobe.
In time, Simone’s focus moved from the children —whether they were content with their costumes, being fed a well-balanced dinner and behaving themselves— to taking on the role of Jean. Annie sent her first to Marty, the director, who spent almost an hour with her running lines, blocking, and saying, “That’s okay” at least a dozen times. He was far more patient than Simone had expected him to be. Finn sometimes complained about Marty’s short fuse.
After being sent to wardrobe, where two young children had just finished eating burgers and fries and were thrilled with the costumes they’d been issued, Simone was paired with the choreographer, who gave her a crash course – literally, she crashed into the set three times – and told her she was ready. “Break a leg,” he said. This would likely be the outcome of her performance. Either that, or a broken arm.
Liesl told Simone she looked pretty, and Annie told her she would do a great job and for the next thirty seconds, she felt confident. Then the house lights dimmed, the audience grew quiet and instantly broke into a resounding applause – so much for Finn’s contention that no one would come tonight – and Simone knew the director must’ve walked onstage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, good evening,” Marty began, over the thrumming in Simone’s ears. “Tonight, the role of Jean will be played by Simone Neumann, who graciously agreed to take on this role just a few hours ago. She happens to be the wife of our very own Finn Anderson. Also joining us tonight, and not appearing on your playbill, are Mr. Anderson and Ms. Neumann’s children, Ryan and Liesl. Let’s give our entire cast a warm welcome as we begin our show.”
The children, who’d taken their places behind their mother, beamed when they heard another round of applause. The orchestra brought up the first few eerie strains of music. Finn squeezed Simone’s shoulder, then strolled onstage alongside John, his costar, and opened the play with, “Do you hear that?”
“Are you ready?” Annie whispered to Ryan and Liesl, who were both fearless and more than ready. They walked on with the other villagers, then Simone stood alone for a few seconds, behind the curtain, her heart knocking against her chest.
She was okay. She was okay. She wasn’t okay.
The actors who’d been playing Jean’s father and sister for the past several months walked up to the curtain and stood beside Simone. What had she gotten herself into? The blindness and deafness that usually preceded a feeling of euphoria were now making it difficult for her to hear the dialogue onstage, and the words on the script clenched in her fist had become dark squiggles. She stuffed the papers into the pocket of her apron and followed “Andrew and Fiona MacLaren” through the curtain.
She blinked a few times, adjusting to the light and theatrical fog. She could see no faces beyond the stage, only silhouettes, hundreds of them. Every seat appeared to be filled. She knew nothing about the audience, their ages, their genders, whether they lived in New York or were visiting the city, how long ago they’d bought their tickets. But there was one thing she did know. They had come here to watch a story unfold. And now, more than ever, the people seated before her needed to escape to a mythical village rising from the mist of the Scottish Highlands for one day every hundred years.
It happened to be a story Simone knew well. Maybe she didn’t know every line Jean had spoken in this particular production, although she’d watched Kate’s performance at least five times, but she knew the part. She knew it inside out, backward and forward, round and round. She had rehearsed it every afternoon for months in high school, had performed it to rave reviews. And there was something else she knew; those two children glowing from stage right, and that man gazing at her from stage left – although his character was supposed to be looking at the woman standing beside her – loved her. They believed in her.
She took a deep breath and joined the chorus in singing “Down in MacConnachy Square” and by the second verse, she was in Brigadoon and she was Jean. She presented the story the audience had come to see.
Simone heard them cheering after every song and laughing at all the appropriate moments. As her vision gradually cleared and she made out some of their faces, she found a familiar group of people seated in the first two rows of the balcony – the neighbors with whom she and her family had been watching movies in the lobby. Instead of being intimidated by their presence, Simone was propelled by it. She embraced her role, aware that she was not the same Jean who’d performed seventeen years ago. She was a newer, better version, one who found a secret pleasure in seeing from the corner of the stage a little girl in a purple dress, waving to her friend on the balcony, one who felt a surge of pride every time a young boy in a kilt smiled at her, one who could not believe her fortune that the gorgeous man dancing and singing “Almost Like Being in Love” was the man she had married.
Two hours passed far too quickly. At curtain call, the children stepped out with the rest of the townspeople, and Simone came out and bowed beside the actor playing Charlie. Finn took his bows next to the actress playing Fiona, then again with his wife and children, who had no idea he was going to retrieve them and return hand in hand with them to the front of the stage.
“I had no idea I was going to do that either,” he told them as they left the theater. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
The family exited onto Broadway amidst a flurry of excited voices, the refrain of “Almost Like Being in Love” being sung over and over again, anticipation of the next two performances, speculation over whether the children from the building would still be up when they got home. Then Ryan and Liesl saw the darkened theaters, heard the soft whoosh of a lone taxi driving through a puddle, and they fell silent.
Finn hailed a cab.
How could Simone tell her kids that it was okay to be happy, that it would not be disrespectful to those who had lost their lives on Tuesday? How could she bring back the magic for her children a little longer?
In the taxi, she turned to her husband, who put his arm over Ryan’s shoulder. “I’m starving. How about you guys?”
They said nothing. After a while, Ryan shrugged.
“Ice cream?” Simone offered.
“I wanna see if the other kids liked our play,” Liesl said, gazing out the window.
Simone looked at her watch. “Honey, it’s pretty late. I’m sure they’ve gone to bed. We can see them in the morning.”
“Then I guess ice cream,” Liesl said, without her customary enthusiasm, and without taking her eyes off the dark streets of Manhattan.
“I wanna go to that cheesecake place in Times Square,” Ryan said, finally turning away from the window. “We always get ice cream just cause it’s Liesl’s favorite.”
His sister glared at him. “Everyone likes ice cream.”
“We always do what Liesl wants.”
“We do not!”
“Tell you what,” Finn said. “We still have two more performances, so how about ice cream tonight, tomorrow night cheesecake, and then Sunday, who knows.”
The children seemed to be okay with that, for now. By the time they got out of the cab, they’d found something else to fight about. Finn grinned at Simone, and just as they had when taking their bows, the four Broadway stars held hands, and walked toward a colorful neon ice cream cone, the only sign illuminated tonight along this stretch of shops and restaurants.