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

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

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.

It's just he came up sooner than expected.

As I write, we are a week more down the line. One week to go. To my own astonishment and the encouraging applause of my fellow cast members, the words have now lodged themselves quite squarely in my memory. It just shows how imminent hanging concentrates the mind, as somebody once said and the rest of us appropriately repeat. The one or two phrases I still persist in forgetting I ballpoint on the palm of my hand for reference.

Of course it is fun - or more than fun - playing a character unlike yourself. Arguably, that is why we want to act in the first place.

While I was still Professor Willard, the director told me he was the kind of waffly person who had piles of books all over his study and while he thought he knew where they all were, he really hadn't a clue. That description, I replied, is far too close to home for comfort.

But Webb is neither forgetful nor, I think, untidy. He is efficient, crisply spoken, never (or virtually never) at a loss, self-assured, quick-witted. Assuming these traits is an education in itself. It's rather a nice feeling.

But not, as yet, in the mowing department. At tonight's rehearsal, Clare is going to show me just how to do it, she says. Ian McLaren Thomson (who plays Doc Gibbs) has already done his best to instill in me his idea of forward-and-back mowing motion, rather like the tide coming in. But I still don't get it, really. I have been researching in a book I have managed to find on my shelves called "The American Lawn."

In it, late-19th-century ads for such mechanical delights as the "Excelsior Lawn Mower for Horse or Hand Power," manufactured by Chadborn and Coldwell of Newburgh, N.Y., are a great help. I have also decided that Webb definitely wouldn't have used a sit-on steam-powered mower, and anyway, the one shown in this book is dated 1906. So - still with a slight affection for professorial attitudes lingering at the back of my mind - I'll take the book along tonight, I think.

But I suspect it may be Clare's tutelage that'll finally do the trick. Sure hope so.

The story of 'Our Town'

Thornton Wilder's 1938 play "Our Town" won the Pulitzer Prize and became so popular that it was said the play could be seen somewhere in the United States on any evening of the year.

The action takes place on a mostly bare stage, where the Stage Manager narrates a homely tale of small-town life in Grover's Corners, N.H., in the early 1900s. The main characters are neighbors Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who are in the same high school class and soon fall in love. They marry, but several years later Emily dies and arrives at the graveyard. There she soon understands all the things that living people do not seem to.

"Our Town," Wilder states in his preface, explores what it means to be alive. It is "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."

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