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For me, suddenly, all the lawn's a stage

By Christopher Andreae / January 29, 2003

Clare has kindly promised to help me out with my lawn mowing.

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I fear it is all too obvious to her, as production assistant, watching our rehearsals and taking notes, that I haven't got the hang of it at all. I can't deny it. This is just the kind of tricky incompetence that keeps us acting amateurs humble.

The irony is that the many miles of actual lawn mowing I have done in real life over the years would add up to a trip from John O'Groats to Land's End, if not back again.

Yet here I am in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," May 7, 1901, and the director's comment on my first attempt at miming lawn mowing (since everything is mimed and the props people have not been asked to provide a real mower) was: "That's hoovering you're doing, not lawn mowing!" While I found this terribly funny, I admit it has also made me a mite nervous. I've been messing up the mowing miming ever since.

But I'm going to have to get it right. I revere Wilder far too much to want to let his memory down. "Mr. WEBB," he announces firmly in his stage directions, "having removed his coat, starts pushing a lawn-mower, to appropriate sounds, from down L. above his house to L. of C. Turning, he retraces and makes another trip to L. of C."

Watching this exercise is the Stage Manager. The role, coincidentally, has been played the past 10 weeks to critical acclaim on Broadway by Paul Newman (whose charitable and taste-buddy "Newman's Own Italian Dressing," by the way, makes very ordinary Safeway lettuce spring to highly palatable life; our fridge is never without it). Ian Aldred, a stalwart of our Players, and I think the only professional in this production, delivers the same lines with aplomb: "Mr. Webb's cuttin' his lawn over there, - one man in ten thinks it's a privilege to push his own lawn-mower." Why, I ask myself (strangely contorted as I try unconvincingly to feel the effort and resistance involved in hand mowing), why does Mr. Webb, local newspaper editor, have to be the "one" in the "ten"? Surely he could afford to hire one of the 10 percent "illiterate laborers" who, he has just informed the audience, live in the town? It ain't no use questioning, though. Acting is an obedient business.

As a matter of fact, on this occasion, I am not type-cast. For one thing, I have never had a remote hankering to be a newspaper editor, local or otherwise. I've known a few, and between you and me, it's a mug's game if ever there was one. Furthermore, Webb is distinctly a "local worthy" in Grover's Corners, N.H. I am not local worthy material at all. Local, but not worthy.

Actually, I'm just helping out. The technical teacher who had the role, and suited it amiably, distressfully found he had to pull out two weeks before the first performance. Aldred cornered me in the clubhouse kitchen. "We have a problem ..." he began.

The upshot is that I was promoted to Mr. Webb from my much lowlier multiple-part positions as Professor Willard, anonymous choir member, wedding guest, First Dead Man, and Old Farmer McCarthy (also dead, even if he does speak). I loved playing the ancient and doddering Willard. But I had, at the same time, been quietly promoting the idea that I wouldn't altogether mind a really live part sometime soon, and Webb is certainly that.