Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rock Star — A Miniseries (honest!)
(Part 2 of 2)

A play on words
Despite the adverse effect that this driest summer in memory may have had on the depth of Tennessee’s fall seasonal color, the southern inner rim of the Appalachians were still ablaze in all hues of deep red, orange and gold as we traveled southeast on I-24 last Saturday afternoon.

A crappy photo of some beautiful scenery
A crappy picture of some beautiful scenery.
It was as pretty as anytime I can remember making the trip, which we’ve done plenty of times over the course of the past four-and-a-half years. Three-to-five times annually, we’ve pilgrimaged to Chattanooga to see our daughter’s plays; first as a member of the theater department at the University of Tennessee, and now in her new involvement with Chattanooga’s Community Theater group.

I’ve heard it said that those who can’t act...teach, and those who can’t teach...do community theater. Well, I’m here to tell you that just ain’t true. Two of the best-acted plays I’ve seen in awhile were both community theater plays. They also both happened to feature my daughter, Amy.

After graduating from UT Chattanooga last spring...er...summer, Amy received a promotion to a lower-level management position from her previous part-time counter clerk sort of gig with the City of Chattanooga Visitor’s Center. She now makes a decent salary, with health insurance, paid vacations, and the whole nine yards. It’s not a career ladder-type position, but it is the first ‘real job’ she’s had. Naturally she felt pretty good about the opportunity, so instead of leaving Chattanooga following graduation as she had originally planned, she decided to remain in town another year to save money and take the time to fully decide what her next career step would be.

Chicago is one option, and was the leader in the clubhouse (not to mention having the full endorsement of dear ol’ Dad) until this fulltime position came up and pulled sway against it. The fact of the matter is, Amy needed some time to transition from the la-la-land of college idealism into the rubber-meets-the-road reality of the working world.

Going to Chicago would have been great; she already has friends up there; former UTC classmates who preceded her in school and decided to try and form their own acting company. My sister in-law’s brother has been a working actor in the Windy City for years, and recently encouraged Amy to come up and give it a try.

So the bottom line is, she’ll definitely have moral support, if and when she makes it up there. What she wouldn’t have had right now however, was money. She obviously had no way of saving much of anything while she was in school, working only enough to scrape up a few bucks for gas and spending money. The dough Michelle and I sent her during school months was just enough to cover her living expenses. The beer and cigarettes would have to be on her dime.

So as much as I would have liked to see her get her acting career started in earnest, I could certainly understand her situation. She needed a bit of a grubstake to make sure she at least didn’t start off as a starving artist.

Besides, who wouldn’t feel a little flattered, being offered their first real job promotion? But let’s face facts. Amy loves ‘Chatty’ and leaving her first home away from home will be a hard thing for her. At least this coming year will give her a chance to say goodbye.

So now that it was decided she was staying, what about acting? She certainly needed something to keep her irons in the theatrical fire, so why not try out for the local company?

It was something I’d never given much thought to her doing, but it really made sense. And as she’s always done, she placed her whole heart into the work. Her first part was a minor, yet very memorable role as the secretary of Hollywood Producer David O. Selznick in Moonlight and Magnolias, a play I thoroughly enjoyed, and not only for Amy’s performance. The cast was filled with accomplished, yet somewhat road-worn semi-professionals who still had a bit of the magic left, but obviously weren’t ready for prime time any more. Amy’s wonderfully quirky performance as Miss Poppengull literally stole the show, despite the fact that she was onstage for only brief moments scattered throughout the play.

She received rave reviews and was instantly invited to audition for future roles. This past weekend, we witnessed her in the first leading role of her post-college career.

The play is called, See Rock City, and no, it’s not about Cleveland. The story is actually placed in Kentucky, and the title subject is a tourist attraction just outside Chattanooga, the former home of the playwright, Arlene Hutton.

Rock City is a sort of roadside curiosity, a tourist trap, if you will (but Michelle has been there and tells me it’s well worth visiting). It’s an area atop the high foothills off Interstate 24, six miles north of Chattanooga, but for which the signs urging you to visit begin more than 100 miles out in all directions. It’s an attraction of interestingly unique geological formations and dramatic vistas that apparently was a popular honeymoon spot for the region back in the 30s and 40s (a la Niagara Falls), which is its particular relevance to the play.

If you’ve ever driven anywhere near Chattanooga on the interstates, you’ve undoubtedly seen the dozens of advertisements for Rock City, along with its sister attraction, Lookout Mountain. By way of comparison, if you’ve ever driven out west and seen the ubiquitous road signs for ‘Stucky’s,’ I think you’ll understand the phenomenon. Those three words, ‘See Rock City’ are plastered everywhere.

Following her performance, a relative of her co-star in the play and I were asking Amy about how well the two-week engagement had drawn. She said the crowds started out small, but grew as the weeks went by (the Saturday night crowd was quite good I thought). Amy credited the play’s popularity to word of mouth. I wisecracked that it must have been all that free advertising I saw along the side of the road as we drove down.

Dinner and a Show
As is our tradition when we come down for Amy’s plays, we arrive early to have a bite to eat with our daughter before she has to be at the theater to get ready for the evening’s performance.

Having stopped off at the new house lot on the way, we unfortunately were running a little behind. But Amy wasn’t worried. We’d grab something at the nearby Mexican restaurant. There’d be more than enough time to visit.

Amy’s bachelorette bungalow
Amy’s bachelorette bungalow.
We arrived at Amy’s new digs a little after 5:30 Saturday afternoon. Michelle was already familiar with the location of the house Amy is renting with another young woman, having helped her decorate the place soon after she moved in last month.

Amy lovin’ the lens on her front porch.
Amy lovin’ the lens on her front porch.
She showed us around the place briefly. I was impressed. It’s perfectly situated in an area that’s close to Downtown and anyplace she’d need to go. It was fairly decent in size. It seemed to be a perfect bachelorette pad.

The women in my life: Amy and her Mom
The women in my life: Amy and her Mom.
After the tour of Amy’s new house, we headed on to the restaurant on foot, just a block and a half down the street.

We were seated immediately, and after a brief musical chairs photo session back and forth across the table, we settled in to enjoy some tasty Mexican fare. The margaritas weren’t as good as those served up at Michelle’s and my favorite south-o-the border haunt in Franklin, but they weren’t too bad.

"I just love taking candid photos." — Amy
Michelle and AJ
Michelle and AJ
We talked about a number of things, not the least of which was a subject that comes up often in our individual time with our daughter: her brother Shawn. Only this time the occasion was not to vent or talk about their differences, but rather to report what a great time she’d had with him 24 hours earlier.

Shawn surprised us by deciding to make the trip to Chatty to see his sister’s play without us. We had previously invited him to tag along, which we always do when he’s available. And to his credit he’s made it to see a good number of her performances over the years, however no one is surprised nor hurt when he can’t make it.

But with this being Amy’s first post-college lead role, we really hoped Shawn would come out. He responded saying that he had plans that evening and asked if we could change our plans instead and make it Friday night rather than Saturday. Unfortunately that just wasn’t possible for Michelle and me, short of us both taking off work a couple hours early. I was resigned to the idea that Shawn just wasn’t going to be there this time around.

Then to our surprise, earlier in the week we learned that he had called Amy to made plans for coming down on Friday night anyway, with one of his 'cute' buddies in tow.

The trio had a great time together, and as Shawn would tell Michelle a few days later, he just couldn’t believe how much his lil’ sis is continuing to grow up before his eyes.

“I’m telling you, Mom,” Shawn exclaimed, “Every time I see her now, she shows me something different; some example of how much more mature she’s becoming.” To amplify his point, let’s just say that Shawn hasn’t always brought out the ‘mature’ side of his sister. Usually it’s the direct opposite, with the two of them eventually acting like six year-olds if they occupy the same space for too long.

However there would be no brother-sister blowups on this occasion. Shawn and his friend enjoyed the play and the time afterward, as Amy took them out to some of her favorite local drinking spots, then afterwards alowed them to crash overnight at her place.

As much as anything I saw that evening, that thought left me with a great feeling. My kids are actually becoming friends, and developing a relationship apart from their parents. Who Knew? Well, I’d like to say that I did, but I can’t tell you how often I have doubted that it would ever happen — despite the fact that I repeatedly insisted to them both that it someday would.

I remember Amy asking me one time when she was little, “Dad, are you sure Shawn and I will be friends someday, ‘cuz I really don’t like him very much right now.”

“Count on it, Sweetheart. It’ll happen,” I assured her.

Gawd...I just love it when I’m right.

Acting like a bunch a’ stooges
I guess it depends on both the situation and the actor involved, but the conventional wisdom is that Community Theater is not the place one starts, but rather finishes an acting career. At least that’s the assertion cast by one of Amy’s former boyfriends and fellow UTC theater students, a boy we’ll call ‘Shemp,’ because he’s been acting like a real stooge lately.

Shemp is still an underclassman at UTC; Amy and he were an item for a brief period last year, but remained close friends after they stopped dating. That status may have changed as of now, however.

When word got out that Amy, who had been the uncontested star of the UTC program her senior year, was now plying her trade at the Chattanooga Theater Centre, a few of the Moes and Larrys back at the theater department rolled their eyes. From within the idealistic cocoon of their university experience, they questioned her decision to ‘lower herself’ to such involvement in the minor leagues of Community Theater; prostituting herself as it were to the after-dinner blue-haired crowd on Friday and Saturday nights.

Hell, she might as well take up juggling for quarters on the street corner while she’s at it, right?

I have to admit that I was a bit disconcerted myself when Amy first announced she was pursuing such a course. However that fear was based only on the concern that it might lead to Amy growing even more comfortable in a city that has been a wonderful place for her to develop, but from which she really needs to break away to achieve her career goals.

However I’d never dream of throwing the hissy-fit that some of her so-called friends have done. Shemp staunchly refused to come see her performance out of protest. He may call that ‘tough love,’ but I call it ‘tough-shit-that-you’re-so freaking-shallow.’

Yeah, I know I’m biased, so sue me. The fact is that Amy did a great job, playing a great part in a well-written play.

A compelling portrayal
I thought Amy was compelling as May, a young wife whose husband’s ‘hidden’ physical disability forces him to deal with the ignorance, social upheaval, and the obvious economic difficulties of wartime, state-side in the Mid-South during the 1940s.

The role of May’s husband, Raleigh, was played by a young man who himself is a Community Theater veteran, but hadn’t done much acting since the 90s. Nonetheless he played a convincing role in an interesting story that particularly dwells upon the social mores of the day and the role changes brought about by WWII.

Those of us who have grew up watching the Viet Nam, and now, the Gulf and Iraq wars on television, may not realize just how differently war and the sense of duty fit into the collective thought process of society some sixty-five years ago.

World War II was enthusiastically considered to be the ultimate duty of manhood to all those who were able-bodied in those days. But what about those who appeared to be able bodied yet did not serve; those who were rejected as participants in the war based upon things like flat feet, or epilepsy as in the case of Amy’s co-star? Most of us can’t imagine the scorn these men felt in a time when America was fighting a truly just war, and being a part of it was almost universally accepted as the right thing to do.

Therein lays Raleigh’s struggle: to deal with the pressures exerted by society around him, based on a disease the public was so ignorant about that even his own Mother considered it more a character flaw (“Raleigh’s ‘little fits,’” as she called them) than an illness. Not only does he have to deal with the shame of being unfit to be a soldier, but his status as an epileptic also precludes him from driving or operating machinery. Hence, Raleigh has no visible means of employment, save for his now fruitless efforts as a freelance storywriter; a once-promising career that suddenly dried up when the war hit.

Since he’s unable to support his family, that responsibility is forced upon his wife, May, a grade school principle becoming increasingly frustrated by the pressures that weigh upon her young shoulders.

Trying to fit in when the world thinks you’re worthless isn’t such a foreign concept to a lot of us, and playwright Arlene Hutton does a wonderful job of drawing us near enough to touch it in this highly introspective play.

Amy and her 'See Rock City' co-star, Mike.
Amy and her 'See Rock City' co-star, Mike.
Mom & Dad with their 'Rock Star.'
Mom & Dad with their 'Rock Star.'
All told, it was a great day. A wonderful time was had by all. And as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but not just because the star onstage was also the one in my heart.

My heart beats for both of my children, but I think it’s okay to be just a little partial every now and then, don’t you?

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