The Play’s the Thing
December 4, 2013
By Pat Detmer
Plays loom large in our family background. We’ve produced skits on Thanksgiving Day for years, terrifying orphan invitees and leading a grandson to sing in loud and crowded karaoke bars today.
I was introduced to the joys of acting in the second grade, when we were barely able to string together decent sentences or walk without tripping. In spite of this, our teacher — who had clearly chosen the wrong profession — had us onstage in powdered wigs and long dresses, reciting lines of dialogue and doing the minuet.
Although the acting part was fun for me, I was most taken with the process of creation. Because of my naturally overbearing and bossy nature, I started directing my sisters in plays that we put on for our parents and anyone in the neighborhood that we could entice with free ice cream and cake.
My greatest acting and directing achievement was “Little Women.” I was Jo. Who else? And little sister Susie, blond like Amy, became Amy. I considered Meg and Beth to be so peripheral to the meat of the story that I had littlest sister Barb play them both.
There was something familiar about Amy vs. Jo in “Little Women.” It felt a lot like Susie vs. Pat in our “Little Family.” Susie was thin and studious, and I was neither of those. Susie was careful with her things — fussy, I thought — and careful with her shoes and clothes, and I was none of those, either. She saved her allowance. She flirted with boys. I was convinced she was adopted.
My version of the play consisted of three acts: Act I, the sisters talking about Christmas, their father and the Civil War; Act III, their father’s triumphant return home. But Act II was the heart of it for me, the climax, the raison d’être: the Jo vs. Amy fight after Amy threw Jo’s story in the fireplace in a fit of selfish rage.
Ahh … That had a ring of familiarity to it (although Susie had never done anything so heinous) and when we rehearsed it, I did so with a zeal that surprised everyone, including me. Louisa Mae Alcott wrote that Jo shook Amy “until her teeth chattered,” and by God, that was the realism I was looking for! I directed and redirected that scene, calling for Susie to chatter her teeth (You think it’s easy? Try doing it on command) and I remember shaking her shoulders, inches from her pale face and wide eyes as she gamely clacked away, her teeth looking a lot like the ones that you wind up and put on a table.
We practiced over and over and over again until I felt we had it just right. It was, however, never presented due to budget constraints and concerns about Child Protective Services.
You can reach Pat Detmer — whose sister Susie loves her, and who loves her sister Susie … seriously! — at firstname.lastname@example.org.