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Of Angels and Actors

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By Alicia Leonard

 

“You’re not really going to do that play are you? Do something fun and light, maybe a musical. It would be good for ticket sales, and you’d probably get a big audition crowd,” I yammered. He didn’t respond. He did what he wanted, just like me. Never deterred. It was worth a shot, I thought. His back was to me, looking for something in his closet. He finally turned and said very simply, “You should read it” before leaving the room.

 

We had gone the long route. Colleagues in other productions, as actor and director, as friends sitting outside a little Coffee Shoppe in Niceville on Wednesday nights, solving the world’s problems one cup at a time for a few years before our socks and toothbrushes became commingled.

 

Theater came to me late and in strange ways, a totally unexpected guest that set up house as a convolution of coincidence and professionally trained mentors pulling me onstage, and providing me willing wings to huddle under and learn. It was not what I ever expected to do.

 

My mom wanted to be the actor, and her niece actually did it, graduating from Berkeley and Drama Studio London (DSL). But I auditioned and got cast, time after time, slowly accepting the directors saw something I didn’t. The applause? I’d just as soon not take a curtain, something that makes my greatest mentor shudder and give me stink eye. For me, it quickly became about the people I got to create with. It was the process. It took me 30 years to find my tribe, and they were and still are the most amazing and glorious creatures in my eyes.

 

“Stay with me.” He knew something was wrong. “I don’t want to lose you.” A few weeks later, I said “yes” to the role of wife and patient. A few months later, I covered an emergency role for him when an actor dropped out right before opening. I never stepped foot on stage again.

 

They found the tumor that fall. One in a million, they said. A pheochromocytoma. My body had been in extended periods of fight or flight from enormous amounts of adrenalin being dumped into my blood stream for years. They could medicate me so I would not drop dead from a heart attack before or during surgery. One operation and I get my life back, I thought. I got this.

 

Two weeks later—a week before my surgery and with a bloodstream full of alpha-blockers to keep me from going into cardiac arrest—I, an only child, buried my mom. She died suddenly, and most unexpectedly. I was 15 minutes from the hospital when she let go. I felt the cord snap. We never got to say goodbye. She took the role of mother instead of actor, and I can never repay her. We unknowingly shared the disease.

 

In a little tiny church in Alabama, I stood in front of her coffin. A rush of air like wings before I turned to see the double doors fly open and a sea of familiar faces in black from the Mattie Kelly Art’s Center. The technical crew and students that I had worked with the last five years, led by Bob Whittaker, had gotten into a van and driven to the middle of nowhere to stand with me and him while I said goodbye. It was the last time I saw them all together. It was the last time we were all together.

 

They took out the tumor. More surgeries followed. I started having to say goodbye to more and more people I loved while I just lingered. Best friends, family, beloved pets, taken one by one. I lost all hope I would ever be well enough to go back. That part of my life was over, and then…

 

A second cancer, a myeloproliferative neoplasm, rare as the tumor, but in my blood, gave way to a divine intervention in human form. A friend from an online support group for rare cancers told a doctor about me. We shared the disease, but differently. Close to midnight a few days later, my plane landed in Washington, and I was shuttled into a waiting car heading to Bethesda, where armed guards greeted me at the gates of the National Institutes of Heath.

 

The doctor offered me a new role to play if I would give them my DNA. It could maybe help others, maybe help find a cure, he said. I didn’t hesitate. I said yes. Since then, every spring instead of doing a Shakespeare like I once did, I went to get scanned, stuck and studied. Year before last, I got to spend a week with about 12 others similar to me. They had found about 20 of us in the world at that time, and the ones that were willing came together. I am what they call one of one still, until they can find my genetic match.

 

Between the treatment to keep my cell counts down (good old-fashioned bloodletting, ,since I’m one of the five percent without the mutations for MPNs) and the couple of weeks I spent at NIH every year I have been blessed to continued to write and edit for the amazing and supportive work family I have at the DeFuniak Springs Herald Beach Breeze. My newspaper family gave me time to rest and test and try to fight my way back to some type of life.

 

Oh, and him. Working, teaching, directing and being a great husband, but our lives were different. We lost something we loved to share. He had been waiting. Waiting to see if the fire came back. If I came back.

 

I spent a night last fall poring over scripts for a two-woman show. I had started to feel that hunger to make something with others again, to go to the deep end where my toes don’t touch. To just try to live again instead of just trying not to die. As I looked, I kept coming across that script. That play. His play. Damn it.

 

“Can you bring me a photocopy home if you have an extra?” I asked as innocently as possible as he started to work a few days later. A slight smirk, a nod, and he walked out the door. That weekend, I read it in an hour or so. Roles for actresses in their 40 and 60s were rare, and all three of these had meat on their bones. And I was suitable for one the oldest two roles. What if I just tried?

 

I was green the day of auditions, and chose one of the least performed monologues from the show to go along with my unusually nervous shade. I signed in, number nine in line, drew a smiley face and hair on my number (cause that’s what I do) and tried to look at my script rather than who was showing up.

 

I counted the actors my age—three or four, maybe five. Small crowd. Good for actors, bad for directors. I went in, shook hands with the crew full of new faces, felt my feet sink into the floor that has my tears, sweat and occasional blood from past shows intertwined in it and just said my words. Then I ran straight into the back hall like my hair was on fire, hyperventilating a few minutes before a black shirt with a Bob in it appeared.

 

“You okay?” he asked. I looked up at his friendly and familiar face and the first time in six years I responded, “Yeah. I was nervous as hell, but I think I might be okay. I might really be okay.”

 

A few days later, on my way to cover a meeting, Assistant Director Josh Birdsong got to hear me scream like a tiny school girl in his ear for five minutes after offering me a role. I said yes.

 

Starting March 8, I have the honor of sharing a stage with two amazing and glorious creatures, the immensely talented duo of Abby Bonilla and Sarah Coleman. Under the direction of Professor Clint Mahle and Assistant Director Josh Birdsong, along with the watchful eye of Stage Manager Annie Borella, Assistant Stage Manager Megan Rambo and a great number of other talented crew and students yet to be announced, I’ll attempt one of the hardest roles in my life, the role of Dr. Martha Livingstone in Agnes of God.

 

She is difficult, not due to size of role or time on stage, but because it will be a feat to portray an atheist knowing one is standing on a stage in the center of a house full of angels like those at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center. I’m praying for a miracle. It won’t be the first one I’ve ever gotten, and that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

 

Northwest Florida State College presents Agnes of God at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center in Niceville’s Sprint Theater March 8-12. Tickets are available at MattieKellyArtsCenter.org. The play contains adult language and content.

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