Five Steps

March 31, 2008
By Blair Hartman, Chester, NJ

The stage was silent.

I knew the silence was my cue to speak, but for an immeasurably long amount of time – it may have been a second, it may have been hours, I don’t know for sure – I sat in my designated spot, my back unorthodoxly facing the audience, my shaking hands in my lap. I loved the silence of the dark theater and the ragged breathing of my fellow actors on either side of me, their faces blank and sweaty under the hot lights, their costumes plain black and damp, their ears perked and waiting for the lines that they had heard coming from my mouth a million times before. But still I sat, in fear of reaching the monologue that was rapidly approaching on this performance night, the monologue that I both yearned for yet abhorred at the same time.

The swift pulsation of my heart urged me to stand and take the five contemplative steps around my metal chair to address the audience, and so I did as my heart told me to do. On the first step, I felt awkwardly out of proportion; my head felt too big and my legs too spindly; I feared falling over as my center of gravity was quite obviously off-kilter. Upon taking the second step, I remembered to breathe, and my head felt slightly deflated; it was on the third step towards center stage that I uncurled my swollen hands and placed them confidently at my sides, and by the time I took my fourth step into the spotlight, I had completely transformed my anxiety into something dramatically different.

It’s hard to describe the metamorphosis that every good actor goes through as they step into character, but mine occurred on the fifth and final step before my short monologue. At this point I had, without a doubt, become Mrs. Myrtle Webb, the mother of the bride in the current scene, the mother who longed for the past to repeat itself so she would never have to face the unwanted truth that her daughter, her Emily, was going to be married on that day and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Five steps. Mrs. Webb’s feet were together, her posture stooped and unsure, her covered head bent towards her chest as if to hide the worry and sadness she was feeling. She clasped her hands against her chest and brought her eyes up to look at the dim outlines of the audience who were almost invisible under the piercing stage lights.

She opened her lipsticked mouth and spoke the trembling, defiant words:

“I don’t know why on earth I should be crying.”

No noise; complete silence. Another breath, then:

“I suppose there’s nothing to be crying about, but…This morning at breakfast, it came over me: there was Emily, eating her breakfast, as she done for seventeen years…and she’s going out of my house!”

On the words “my house”, Myrtle Webb’s voice cracked from the strain of the emotion she was struggling to hold back, and in later reflection I was almost positive that this crackling, teary effect had only added to the tense moment. Tears flooded my eyes, but not out of emotion; the stage lights were far too bright and I could hardly keep my eyelids open.

The old woman went on, looking at the floor:

“I suppose that’s it…” A pause. Her head snaps back up, towards the audience, her blue eyes wide:

“And Emily! She suddenly said: ‘I can’t eat another mouthful’. And she put her head on the table and she cried. Oh, I’ve got to say it…”

Mrs. Webb hesitated, wringing her hands together and taking a cautious step forward. Mustering her momentum and courage, she straightened and spoke:

“You know…There’s somethin’ downright cruel about sending girls out into marriages like that!” Myrtle Webb was angry now, swelling at the injustice of losing the innocence of youth, frustrated that her very own daughter would soon be stumbling into the unexpected troubles of early marriage. The woman on the stage seemed like a spoiled child who wanted to stomp her foot and protest against the unfairness of the adult world, and she continued to vent her feelings:

“It’s – it’s cruel, I know!” she exclaimed, flinging her hands out in exasperation, “But… I just couldn’t get myself to say anything! I went into it as blind as a bat myself…”

Myrtle Webb stopped and stared out above the audience, as if in reluctant submission. She sighed, and drew a hand across her face.

“The whole world’s….wrong, that’s what's the matter,” she concluded in a monotone of defeat, and the stage was silent once more as the monologue came to a quiet close.

The doors at the back of the theater opened slightly, and the blank faces of the audience were fleetingly lit as a tall figure entered the theater, walking slowly towards the stage.

Mrs. Webb lifted a tired hand and gestured towards her future son-in-law, saying: “There they come…” She turned on the spot and began to walk the five steps back to her seat upstage left.

On the first step, the weariness in her bones began to lift. On the second, the sadness and frustration she had momentarily felt blew away, only to be replaced by relief and happiness. By the third step, Mrs. Myrtle Webb had died and I walked in her place; on my fourth step I returned to being the fourteen-year-old actress that had been cast as an aging mother in a classic play performed in front of a sparse, unreceptive audience. The fifth step put me next to my familiarly cold metal seat, and I gracefully dropped into it as the play continued on.

But to my bewilderment, a noise had begun to fill the cavernous theater like the sound of honey bees in a hive; a sound that was both wonderful yet unexpected at the same time.


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