I hate to hear folks refer disparagingly to ``dogs'' in the theater -- meaning miserable productions or worse. The term means something very different in our household. A few years have gone by since the great adventure, and we've given up trying to work into casual conversation remarks like, ``We like the Kennedy Center, especially when our dog is appearing there,'' or ``Steinbeck? Our dog was in one of his plays.''
It was American College Theater Festival time and the players from Southeastern Oklahoma State College were in town with a very creditable production of Steinbeck's classic -- ``Of Mice and Men.''
Two Oklahomans, then-Speaker of the House Carl Albert and author/reporter Ann Free, collaborated in a search for a local collie for the play. Ann called me, a fellow Press Club member and known collie-owner. David B. Cook, the director of the play, came out to our suburban home to see our collies.
After hasty greetings for the human beings, Cook met the ones he really wanted to see: Lady, a sable and white collie, and her nephew, Baron, a tricolor. Both had obedience degrees; both were well over 10 years of age -- sober and reliable.
Cook stared at the dogs. They stared back, with added civility of wagging tails. The director asked Don to walk through some of the stage business from the play with Baron. Following directions, Don walked across the yard and sat down on our crumbly old cement bench. Baron followed at heel, sat immediately at Don's knee, and looked up expectantly into his face.
Cook went wild. This was just what he had hoped for. Baron was star material.
We offered to groom the old guy, but Cook protested. Baron's fine the way he is, the director said. The dog in the play is supposed to be sort of . . . and he stopped with a stricken look. That's OK, we reassured him. Baron's ``retirement'' appearance might not be great, but we could handle it if the players could. We brushed the leaves out of his coat and Baron went off happily with his new friend. The students had a few hours to get acquainted with their fellow thespian before the matinee, and we were to get tickets for the evening performance.
After a workday spent wondering how things were going, we arrived at the Kennedy Center. The director was lyrical about the matinee, but not too clear. It seemed that at a high emotional point in the play, Baron improvised business of his own that incredibly heightened the drama. ``I hope he does it again tonight,'' Cook said with rolling eyes and dashed off to his backstage duties.
Wondering, we took our seats. The young players were excellent and deserved the plaudits the Washington reviewers gave them the next day.
When, at last, Baron entered from stage right, we found how hard it is not to punch the person in the next seat and whisper hoarsely -- ``Hey, that's my dog!'' Baron's big scene was poignant.
It was the point in the play where Carlson strove to convince one-armed Candy the bunk-swamper that his venerable shepherd dog was suffering and that, furthermore, he smelled. Candy, a ranch worker in his day, described his chum as ``a good sheep dog when he was young.'' Steinbeck made the dog an alter ego for Candy. If Carlson indeed took the dog away to be shot, Candy, too, had reached the end.
Carlson persisted and another ranch hand joined in on Candy's side. The three men stood arguing.
Suddenly, there was another character on stage, one for whom Steinbeck wrote no lines. Standing with his forequarters thrust within the group of men, Baron looked anxiously at each young speaker in turn, his ears tucked back into his ruff.
Persuasion was too much for Candy. He prepared to let Carlson take his old companion.
At this point, stage directions by Steinbeck and onstage action diverged sharply. Steinbeck's notes said, ``Candy does not look down at the dog at all as he says to Carlson, `All right, take him.' ''
The young actor, however, took Baron's head in his hands, grasping the fur at the base of his ears. Baron rested his forehead and muzzle against the lad's chest, then lifted his muzzle until he gazed directly into his ``master's'' face. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
The inexorable Carlson led the dog away, saying brightly to Candy, ``He won't even feel it.''
Stage direction now paled to nothing compared with the action. ``Exit Carlson with the dog,'' said Steinbeck.
Baron appeared to decide this was getting serious, and balked. Carlson gave up on the lead and dug his hands into the heavy ruff at Baron's shoulders. Baron barked and pulled away, obviously ``fighting for his life.'' Dog folk observed that Baron's waving tail wasn't as good an actor as the rest of him, but the effect of his fanfare of barks fading from the stage set and beyond left a lump in every throat. There was an audible gasp as, at last, a shot rang out from the distance backstage.
Reviewers the next day paid no attention to the dog, assuming, I suppose, that he did what he was trained to do. I wished I could have made it clear to them what a tribute Baron's on-stage responses were to the fine young actors. Baron, of course, was not acting. He may have known Carlson meant him no harm, that it was a kind of game. But I was reasonably sure that when his new friends argued and gestured angrily, Baron's concern was real.
We were invited to the after-play reception. After I inscribed our names on the plastic-sheathed cards, adding in large letters, ``Family of the Dog,'' the room was suddenly brighter and warmer. The actors told us how much they had enjoyed knowing Baron.
There was a hubbub at the door and everyone made an aisle for the new arrival. The stage manager had arrived with Baron, and the human celebrities faded in a chorus of ``oohs'' and ``aahs.''
Baron didn't need a badge; everybody knew him. We wondered if life with the old boy would ever be the same, but, uncaring for the future, we led him through the gantlet of admiring murmurs, enjoying it to the hilt.