Monday, January 24, 2011

And the STEELERS 'R' goin to da SOUP-A-BOWL!


Monday evening quarterbacking is just SOOO on the money - as we used to say in the 'hood. (that would be Brooklyn). Can't speak for ALL (only b/c of time constraints, attention span, etc.) but I'm pooped (ALmost said 'beat' - oops) - so much shouting, molar-grinding, higher power invocation - the proverbial gamut. And then we had to watch the games. And eat. And eat. But Big Ben pulled it off. . . . Enuff football. This tripe is rapidly degenerating.

In the interest of soldiering on, however, fatigue be damned. I must at least share with you, as well as my gratitude for inviting me into your thoughts tonight, a "football story" - once or twice removed.

Back in the day, here in Hampton Roads, Virginia, I did quite a bit of community theater whilst raising the fam. It was therapeutic, my colleagues were great talents/people whose life circumstances were of the same stripe as my own, and "trotting the boards" was a far moan from my educational/professional experience which, albeit extremely challengeing/rewarding, tended to send one seeking intense 'couch time', what with the mortality/morbidity rates then existant in Coronary Care Nursing. I tended toward the comedic, 'light-fare, mindless metier and darned if I didn't secure many such roles with uncanny ease.

Having managed a decent showing in a Dinner Theater production of Neil Simon's "Prisoner of Second Avenue" (Not many natives down here can 'get' that NY accent across), I was fortunate to land a minor ingenue part in a Tidewater Dinner Theater Production of the Stars experiment - a VERY simple comedy STARRING (ready??) the wonderful, charming, talented, incredibly energetic Pat O'Brien (and wife Eloise). (Pat is seated, down right; Eloise down left and I'm standing behind Mr. O'Brien in the striped 'thing' in photo above)
You will recall his remarkable performance in "The Knute Rockney Story" which, tenuously, lends some papier mache link to what began this blog - a football story! It is indeed an enjoyable dessert to a 'football evening' & goes like this:
"This will never do", I thought. A dim, smoky, cluttered rehearsal hall, smelling of paint and wood shavings, is at best insulting for a theatrical legend. Then the door opened and the man entered with a presence, like a fog -- preceding, surrounding and following him, rolling over everything and everyone. His gait was halting - the shuffle of the very old and tired. He used a walking stick but didn't seem to favor any particular side or limb. His eyes were fixed on the floor as though making certain that the spot that would next bear his weight didn't move. He wore a black wool beret pulled to one side like the beginning of a grin. Making his way across the room to a sturdy wing chair, older than dirt (which he must have sighted before making his cross) he paused just long enough to ask the room -- or the floor -- "Am I on the set?". While twenty-odd people muttered negative responses with reverent voices, Pat O'Brien had eased himself down and sat beaming, beret on walking stick, gazing out as if at family whom he hadn't seen in years -- and dearly missed. There was no age in or about the chair now. His speaking voice, a clear tenor, echoed beautifully and the volume seemed effortless even though it originated from that frail, brittle rib cage. The director introduced himself as John and presented his assistant Mark. Pat let his eyes rest on two other men at random, saying with a bit of a rasping brogue, "Then you two must be Luke and Matthew." (One kid actually shot out "Yes sir!" before realizing what O'Brien was about.) And then the 'family' began to assume a form with Pat the uncontested patriarch, fueling and guiding our work with unexpected asides and commentary. The man's humor is not large, but subtle and well-placed -- a deftly-used tool for maintaining the energy level required to be both happy and productive. The remarkable thing about his appearance is its deception. Always meticulously groomed and tailored, he stands in a faint cloud of English Leather and fresh breath. His soft, white hair recedes as if forced to by his broad, shiny red forehead. His brows and lashes, too, have paled from the bright glow of clear, 'smiling' blue eyes. And the smile is there even when it isn't - at once the cherub and the rake. With short, chubby, arthritic fingers he makes the most delicate gestures which draw large pictures in the air. Incredibly, the shuffle would become a graceful walk whenever he was "on"; his joints seemed to glide over each other as they raised and lowered his frame, carrying it up, down and across the stage during rehearsals and performances. And then; what came to be the familiar 'downshift' into the off-stage pacing. "Got to rest the machine when you're not using it", he'd say.
His is a studied spontaneity, a controlled dynamism. The vitality - overwhelming on stage, is just as intense off, but wisely rationed into a pattern which reveals a man who is at peace with himself and therefore creates an easy, delightful ambience. There is much time spent waiting - before and during forty-eight performances. Sometimes Pat would nap but more often he would lead us in playing word games which required quick recall of obscure data. He usually won. Then, the game over, he'd settle back saying, "That reminds me of the time when . . . "while everyone sat fixed, ready to laugh or cry and be there "the time when . . . ." His tales, like his personality, were a beautiful blend of remembered tears and laughter. After every performance Pat would do a curtain routine -- stories and jokes. I knew how exhausted he was and I would stand and watch his profile, now graceful and soft in the blinding, hot follow-spot, reflecting the glow of a delighted audience, beads of perspiration covering his shining face. He would ease in to the Irish Blessing, pausing slightly after the final line to let the emotion settle like a mist. And then he was exiting toward me in the wings, waving to a standing ovation with his left hand while reaching for mine in the dark with his right. A slow, silent walk now to the dressing room and then that half turn, wink and smile for "Thank you, darlin'".
Well, one minute "you're standing in the wings; the next you're wearing them." And Pat has joined his Seraphim Cast. It/He was a precious experience which I hope you've enjoyed. Just this Christmas I re-gave our son, Philip a baseball purchased & autographed by Pat O'Brien on our ONE dark Sunday when he and the Mrs. went touring in Williamsburg. He was a true pro while being a true friend. (One evening, we took him and Eloise to dinner at a Virginia Beach restaurant and as he humbly entered, the orchestra rose and blasted the Notre Dame Fight Song. He stood rapt, generously/gratefully respectful and burst into applause at its conclusion.) I, of course, remain in his debt forever. Opening night, family/friends of ours flown in from all over, I "rang the doorbell", the door opened, I entered the 'set' living room, and stood, "stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox", thinking, "My God. I'm on the same stage as Pat O'Brien!" After a small eternity, he rose, approached me and kindly invited me in using my "role" name with pointed volume. I returned to the reality of the fiction with some semblence of comportment - I guess. . . .
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