Melancholy curtain falling on magical summer stage

August 29, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

FAYETTEVILLE, PA — FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. -- "Helena, Montana. A young actor. 'Brigadoon,' " Wil Love says.

He is dragging on a cigarette, warming to the memory of his greatest summer stock story in three decades on the stage.

"The character stuck his head into a window, and his remark was, 'Nice house you have here.'

"And then," -- puff -- "the house fell in."

Pause. Puff. Smile.

"And I said, 'Well, it was nice.' "

This is life in summer stock.

It's eight shows a week for $450 a week union scale.

It's a small musical each season, a British farce, and, of course, a Neil Simon standard.

And in late August, after a long, hot summer, it is a sad yet sweet place to be, as a company prepares for a final curtain.

They are winding down the 43rd summer season at the Totem PolePlayhouse, a jewel of a theater, with 450 seats, chandeliers made from old wagon wheels, and louvered windows that open to a grove of pines at Caledonia State Park.

They don't get rich. And they don't get famous. They just do the work, and do it well, night after night, year after year, practicing a craft and enjoying a way of summer life that is growing extinct.

"You make something out of nothing," Mr. Love says. "You create fabulous sets on a shoestring. You do five plays for the audience and you do one for yourself."

There are work and sweat and illusion.

There is magic.

And, break a leg, nobody loses a house.

Take away the bat darting through the wooden rafters, the heat that clings to a body like a dirty wet towel, and the sound of crickets singing summer's last soulful song.

This really is sunset in Greece, even if the sun is a klieg light set on a computer delay switch, and the beach is made of chicken wire, burlap and gray paint.

Jayne Houdyshell, playing 42, frumpy and frustrated, is on stage, grabbing hold of this role and this one-woman play called "Shirley Valentine."

Kansas-born, New York-raised, she is all English now, spitting out lines in a thick accent of the British north, winding up her second performance of the day by wringing tears from another middle-aged audience.

Shirley Valentine finally leaves that Liverpool kitchen, leaves her husband and two grown children, goes off on holiday to Greece, has a fling and rediscovers what it means to live and love.

"I thought to meself, my life has been a crime really -- against God, because . . . I didn't live it fully," she shouts.

The leading lady

When the light fades to black, those in the house, two-thirds full, rise and applaud. And Ms. Houdy shell reappears in the light, bowing and smiling.

A few minutes later, the actress is backstage, dressed in a robe, feet propped on a coffee table, makeup smudged by the heat and the work, her henna-colored hair a tangle of curls. A cigarette dangles from her mouth.

"This is a bittersweet time," Ms. Houdyshell says. "It's the end of summer. You feel that you've survived something special. I always leave hoping there will be another season."

She was booked for just one show this summer, but when another actress copped a movie role in Montana and dropped out of "Plaza Suite" at the last moment, Ms. Houdyshell came to the company's rescue.

She is a pro -- knew she wanted to be on the stage when she was 7 and just followed the dream, out of Topeka. Tough and sassy, she can belt out a song, milk a punch line or play it straight down the line in a classic. And then along comes a part like Shirley Valentine, and she's out there alone, vulnerable, walking a high wire of emotion and vulnerability.

But she has never played Broadway.

"When I first started out in the theater, I had Broadway on my mind, just like everyone else," she says. "Somewhere along the way, I kind of let go of that. I don't find that I let go of a dream or I sold out. Broadway is not the be-all and end-all. My happiness is not dependent on a Broadway contract. It's doing plays that are good with people who I respect and who respect me."

So she is here. Shirley Valentine. Playing to senior citizens and vacationers.

"I think I have a gift for this," she says. "And it's a crime not to use our gifts. I love it, and I feel like it's the most meaningful and effective way that I can contribute to the lives of others."

The leading men

This is the terror and the beauty of summer stock at Totem Pole.

In 1976, an actor named Arden Kaiser feverishly prepared to take the lead in "The Great Big Doorstep." But he couldn't learn his lines. Come opening night, he was nowhere to be found. They searched the woods. They fanned out on the roads. Finally, they found notes of apology on the front and stage doors, signed by the actor.

He was never heard from again.

Into the breach stepped Bill Putch, guiding light and patron saint of the theater. He would read the part, bearing a script, and if audience members objected, they would be provided with a refund.

No one left.

And the show went on.

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