4: Drama Come to Life

4: Drama Come to Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Drama Come to Life

What happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?

~Author Unknown

As I stepped in front of the audience, a gentleman in the front row caught my attention. He was immaculately dressed, well groomed, and had a genteel and refined demeanor. He held his head and shoulders erect, and his eyes sparkled. As my performance progressed, I could see he was clearly impressed with each vignette. Occasionally, he would nod or whisper affirmation of the character’s lines. It all seemed to touch him deeply. I didn’t quite understand why, but there seemed to be something extraordinary happening. Was I witnessing some deep level of hope — or even need?

When performing, I always try to remain aware of how individual members of the audience respond. The nature of that response can be a clear indication as to whether I have gained or lost that vital, dynamic connection required between actor and audience. As an actress and playwright, my aim is always to craft characterizations that reveal the mysteries and emotional complexities of life.

Thus, while observing this particular gentleman’s reactions, I was suddenly struck by the thought that he was living somewhere within my dramatic presentations. It was a thrilling possibility. There are times when one special audience member can add an element of total surprise. It’s rare, but when it happens, the impact upon me as an actress, as well as upon the rest of the audience, can change the dynamic of my performance.

My presentation that evening, called “A Patriot’s Heart,” included five characters representing the American spirit. My third vignette was a portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. This woman’s poignant and misunderstood life story is filled with such majesty and tragedy. Mary was a coquettish woman deeply in love with Mr. Lincoln, and I portray her as such. During my performance, I tell many of the charming stories that she would have told. They are rich stories, ones that open a window onto the courtship and family life that Mary so enjoyed with her beloved husband. At the beginning of this particular vignette, my goal is always to make the audience feel comfortable, safe, and warm — as they would feel if they were in their own homes.

But then, out of nowhere — wracking grief!

“Why! Why would they kill my husband?” she wails. “Why do they hate him so? I can’t understand it. How can there be a world filled with so much hatred — such terrible hatred!”

Then suddenly, she splits the air with a shrill scream!

Yes, I have the audience in the palm of my hands. There’s a collective gasp as they slide forward to the edge of their seats.

Mary Lincoln continues to cry out in despair. Her hands tremble uncontrollably as her body is bent into a tortuous position. She is on the verge of collapse.

What happens next I could not have scripted. As if on cue, my gallant gentleman in the first row stands and steps forward — one deliberate step after another. Now, facing a shocked audience, we are standing together. He extends his hand and looks at me with warm eyes. His face is filled with such deep sympathy and compassion.

As a professional actress, I have enjoyed, and on some occasions endured, numerous interruptions and unusual occurrences while performing. The stage can be a place of unexpected mystery for the actor as well as the audience. Invariably, these alterations build layers of experience for staying in character under all circumstances. But in my entire career before this, I had never faced such a potent mix of feelings: wonder, disquiet, fascination — and yet, no real concern.

Gently placing his left hand on my shoulder, my new compatriot softly said, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” The audience was wide-eyed and frozen in place. Quickly gathering my thoughts and continuing in character, I reached over, took his hand in mine, and closed the distance between us.

We must have been a touching tableau: a small, slender white woman receiving solace from a tall, elegant black man. In spite of the ravages of Alzheimer’s, he had stepped into the moment and offered a loving gesture of pure compassion to a woman in need. We had breached time and space, drawing past and present into one never-to-be-forgotten moment.

~Mary Margaret Mann

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