Out of the Depths
It was the lowest point of my life. My 23 year marriage was over. We’d been talking about it for a long time, but finally he was ready.
I wasn’t. I had just lost my job.
My daughter, who was 21, decided that she wanted to move to San Francisco. Three thousand miles away.
I was thankful that my mother was still alive, having survived two hospice stays she seemed indestructible. And then she died suddenly.
I never felt worse, or more terrified, or more alone.
One afternoon my cell phone rang. It was an area code I didn’t recognize and normally I would have let it go to voice mail, but I picked it up.
It was a director, Matt Penn, calling to tell me that he wanted to do a staged reading of a play I had written with Gary Richards, at the Berkshire Playwrights Lab in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And that the reading would be happening in ten days. If I hadn't been so out of it, I would have panicked, a big, ugly hyperventilating panic.
The play was to be performed on a Wednesday night and I took the train up on the Sunday before. I waited at the station and watched as everyone got picked up or drove away and soon I was all by myself. I tried to call the intern but got her voice mail instead. I stood there thinking, what the hell am I doing? It seemed just like my life—I thought I knew where I was going and why, only to find myself stranded and alone.
Finally the intern called, apologetic. She had picked up the actors, but had forgotten about me.
She came back and we drove to a little meeting house in the woods outside of Great Barrington and I met Matt and the rest of the actors. Everyone was incredibly friendly and kind. Gary couldn’t come until the night of the reading because he was teaching. I’d seen readings of this play, Scrambled Eggs (the sub-title is, in my mind is: “The Wisdom of Insecurity”). It’s a comedy about an everywoman – Karen – who is overwhelmed by life and she is loosely based on me and parts of all my friends. She’s married to Dave, who is not so much based on my ex, but a fictionalized (funnier) version of him. We see Karen at various stages of her life – struggling to figure out how to do it all – and how to maintain her equilibrium.
We were all invited to Matt’s beautiful home for dinner that night and I got to know the cast members. At one point, Matt was barbecuing and he asked me to join him. He and two of the other directors of the Lab were talking about the play and how much they loved it, but thought that the ending needed some work.
Didn’t they know that I was essentially out of my mind and couldn’t concentrate enough to write a grocery list, let alone a new ending??
I tried not to look like I was having a nervous breakdown and when we got back to the inn, I took my cell phone out to the parking lot, the only place I could get a signal, and I called Gary.
“Gary, they want a new ending!”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. Just write something funny…you can do it.”
“GARY, I don’t know what the f*#k to write!”
“What? I can’t hear you…”
I lost the signal. Amy Van Nostrand, who was playing Karen, saw me as I re-entered the inn and offered to go over the script.
YES. Yes! We went up to my room and read almost the entire play aloud and we bonded when we discovered we were both getting divorced.
We talked about the ending and we had some good ideas. The next day I raced to type it up as the actors went into rehearsal. I ran over at the lunch break and showed Matt what I had. He laughed and said, “close, but not quite.”
So I kept writing and running over and finally by the end of the day he was satisfied. Then I had to race back to Manhattan for a tech rehearsal of a solo show I was performing at the Midtown International Theater Festival. Nothing to do that entire summer except that one week I had the reading and three performances of a solo show. In one week. And I could barely get out of bed and brush my teeth.
I went back to Great Barrington Wednesday afternoon in time for a run-through and then Gary arrived right before the show. At every other reading of my work, I’d generally felt the need to be sedated, but this time I felt pretty calm. I didn’t know a soul in the audience. Maybe no one would show up?
The Mahaiwe is an incredibly beautiful theater that opened in 1905 and was newly renovated. Gary and I sat up in the balcony and watched as the theater filled up. We didn’t know this at the time, but Matt had done a local NPR interview about the play and said, “this play is headed to New York.” So the theater was packed, there were at least 450 people. We could watch people laughing hysterically, slapping their knees and elbowing the person next to them. I started to laugh and I laughed for ninety minutes and watched the actors bring the play to life and the audience eat it up.
At the end of the reading, I felt something I had forgotten was possible. I felt happy. I could breathe… for the first time in months. I could feel the power of laughter, to bring you out of despair and to make you feel alive again.
I also realized that I if I truly had a purpose, making people laugh is not such a bad purpose to have in life.
Three and a half years later…life is so much better. Divorce didn’t kill me, it made me stronger. Amy is stronger too. And she will be starring in a production of the play next April, at the Beckett Theater in New York City, just as Matt predicted.