MAY 14, 1983 . . . the last performance of the outlandish comedy, "The Whole Town's Talking," will begin in about an hour. I have pulled on my first-act costume--a splashy, purple-flowered chemise with a pink, jewel-studded sash draped about the hips, and sleek black pumps--a fine get-up for the Midwestern grande dame I am playing. How haughtily she promenades about in this attire! With great care, I apply elaborate makeup. My short floppy hairdo has been fashioned into an elegant upswept coiffure. An array of jewelry furthers my transformation into the vain, overbearing, if preposterous, Harriet Simmons.
Next I try to prepare myself, mentally and physically, to do the play.
Mrs. Simmons opens the show alone and must do a brief scene convincingly to set the light comedic tone of the play.
I feel a thrill and a few cold waves of fear as the huge, red plush curtain is pulled back and the stage lights go up.
Mrs. Simmons, a "fussy, garrulous, romantic fool of a woman," sweeps in with a vase of roses, carnations and lilies-of-the-valley, and dreamily sings the classic Scottish air "Annie Laurie." That much the play's creators tell you. To give added meaning to her entrance, I have imagined that Mrs. Simmons has just received these flowers (an impetuous gift from her likable, but conniving husband) and is allowing herself some tender, romantic thoughts as she sings and arranges the flowers. Then some richer romantic fantasies emerge, I have decided, as Mrs. Simmons shows a slight change in mood. She tucks a flower behind her ear, playfully admires herself in the mirror and bursts into the gypsy love song from "Carmen." I imagine that Mrs. Simmons must here be thinking of some lost love of hers, the latest leading man in the movies or maybe her earlier married days.
It was not always easy to play her character. I spent a great deal of time studying the script, which contained few stage directions for Mrs. Simmons. My director, Sally Richardson, guided me, but I needed to develop the details of the character myself. I had carefully examined the actions and words of Mrs. Simmons and the other characters to understand how she would react, think, move and feel at all times. I had even gone to the trouble of writing a brief biography about the character--a traditional acting technique. I decided that Mrs. Simmons had triumphed over much hardship and obstacles in her youth on a Midwest farm, while her husband Henry (old rascal!) was born to wealth and inherited the family business.
Continually, I tried to make each scene as rich in meaning as possible, feeling that unless I could find new meaning, new detail each time I performed a scene, it would lose its vibrancy.
But "The Whole Town's Talking" is, after all, a farce--a zany tableau of ridiculous characters and actions. Serious dramatic approaches need to be lightened with humor. So I tried to be as sheerly funny as possible, a ludicrous, prideful figure.
. . . The show moves on, the actors continuing their adventure into the convoluted scenario and foolish hijinks that make this show. In my last scene, Mrs. Simmons strides into her living room to find that her husband has just received a provocatively dressed "dance teacher," who is insisting that Henry Simmons owes her something. Mrs. Simmons' affable liar of a husband manages to concoct an explanation just in time.
The performers are having a good night, and the audience seems to be enjoying the show. As you'd expect, this evening's audience sometimes finds humor in different scenes and lines than did other audiences. I've had a couple of moments this evening that were exciting to me--where I was able to add a shade of meaning to a line or movement that made it more human and alive and, most difficult of all, funny.
In a flash, the show is nearing its end, the actors having neatly orchestrated its absurd, rowdy finale. The action has practically catapulted to a finish amid appreciative laughter. For a moment, the cast receives enthusiastic applause.
Then it's over--the magic aura of play-acting shattered. Somewhat sadly I remove the gold lame' finery, glistening gold beads and rhinestone jewels--Mrs. Simmons' glorious third-act costume for the encounter with her husband. I pull out the dozens of hairpins that held up my grand hairstyle and begin to remove the imposing visage that theatrical makeup had created.
For the time being, that romantic fool of a woman, Harriet Simmons, or at least my rendition of her, is no more. What has become of all the energy and reflection that I devoted to developing her character? I hope there is some pleasant trace of my efforts in the psyches of those people who saw our performance.
Nancy Magurn played Mrs. Simmons with the NIH Recreation and Welfare Theater Group for patients at NIH. First Hand is a weekly column written by people in the arts.