Joan Wilking
The Play’s The Thing


Act One / Scene One
Avonlea, Prince Edward Island, Canada
A Railroad Station Platform
Morning
(The curtain is open. The stage is dark except for stage right where a young girl in a plain dress, off-white pinafore, and quaint straw hat stands in a tight spotlight next to a battered suitcase. As the stage lights come up to illuminate the scene she begins to speak.)



Marella reaches over and squeezes Claire’s upperarm hard.
“Is it just me or is that kid’s delivery as flat as a pancake?”
“Shhh. Someone will hear,” Claire whispers. “Maybe she needs an audience. You know some actors can’t really turn it on unless they have an audience.”
“Well she's going to have an audience tomorrow night. If she doesn’t liven up they’re all going to walk out before Scene Two. She’s got only one expression.”
Marella does an exceptionally good imitation of the girl. Her head, darker than the girl’s which has been dyed red for the part, is cocked to one side with a half smile and a coy squint of the eyes. Claire tries not to laugh. If the Director hears she’ll get yelled at and she doesn’t want to get yelled at, not again. The laugh comes out as a dry little croak and Claire fakes a cough to try to cover it up. Marella titters next to her. They’re sitting in the sixth row of folding chairs in the Grange Hall. It isn’t a real theater, not yet. The place is a mess. The stage and set are still under construction. There are big green plastic bags full of debris piled in mounds on both sides of the front door.
The cast, which includes Claire and Marella, have been instructed to sit and watch the first few scenes before rehearsing the schoolroom scene in which they appear. The play is Anne of Green Gables, and even though Claire is only twelve she knows it’s a good choice. The old building was once a one room schoolhouse and still has that feeling with it’s high ceilings and moldings and tall windows.
“It’s all so New England,” her mother says. “Everything about it screams of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland skipping along and calling out, ‘C’mon kids. Let’s put on a play.’ I think it’s a perfect fit.”
Claire can’t quite figure out how her mother made the leap from New England to Rooney and Garland. They were so obviously Hollywood. Claire dreams of being Hollywood some day or better yet Broadway. Last winter she and her mother flew to New York to see an actress who studied with her acting teacher play the second lead in a musical on 42nd Street. The actress could sing and dance and afterwards she took Claire backstage and let her stand at the footlights looking out at the empty theater, a far cry from the Grange Hall where the drops are so old. When the stagehands pull them up, the pulleys scream like babies.
And even though Claire can sing - she has quite a nice voice actually - what she really wants to do is act. She wants to become someone else for a few hours every night. In this play she’s Ruby Gillis, a silly, airheaded girl, who yawns and inspects her nails during the classroom scenes. Marella plays Carrie Slone and she gets to giggle and whisper and roll her eyes a lot.
Marella says, “The whole thing is dumb.”
And she hates her costume. All the other girls are wearing long flowered skirts and white blouses with high necks and lace ruffles. Marella’s wearing a short dress. It’s dark brown with a white collar, some sort of crepey material that feels good against her skin but she thinks it makes her look more like a nineteen twenties flapper than a turn of the century schoolgirl. The thing is, they ran out of blouses and skirts, and Marella is a big girl. The dress fit so she got stuck with it. The costumer said she was going to find a longer skirt for Marella to wear underneath it but it’s the night before opening night and still nothing.
“Oh my God, she did it again,” Marella whispers to Claire.
Claire saw it too. How could anyone miss it. All of the actors have been gossiping for days about how the girl playing the lead keeps stepping out of character in the middle of her scenes to smile lovingly at the director. And the director is crazy about her. Last night after a particularly wooden crying scene the director said, “Honey your crying was so convincing. It nearly broke my heart.”
Marella and Claire really choked on that one. They’ve been acting since they were five and they know what a crying scene is supposed to look like. They’re not jealous though. They were both way too old for the part. They have breasts although Claire’s are still relatively small compared to Marella’s. The girl who got the part is only ten. Claire keeps telling Marella, “She’s cute. She’s nice. She’s not stuck up.”
“She can’t act,” Marella says. And just then the girl launches into a monologue that’s so singsong she sounds like she’s reciting the lines straight out of the script.
“You’re right,” Claire says a little too loud and the Director whips around. She stares straight at Claire and snaps, “Noises off.”
The Director had always been nice when Claire and Marella worked with her before; The Wizard of Oz, Oliver, Peter Pan, community theater productions staged at the bigger theater in town. This show is a benefit for this new theater, in a smaller town neighboring theirs.
“They put on these kid’s shows with a cast of thousands so they’re sure to fill the seats,” Claire’s mother told her. “You know. Each kid has a mother, father, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins...”
But this show has been different. Before, they might not have liked the kids who got the speaking roles, but those kids could always act. The girl who plays Anne is so bad that Claire is beginning to feel embarrassed for her. Claire is seriously interested in acting. She knows what’s good and what isn’t. Marella knows that the girl is a bomb too but she thinks it’s kind of funny. She’s actually enjoying watching the kid make a fool of herself. She’s not as serious about her acting as Claire, although she’s good at it. She does it because she likes hanging out with Claire and the other kids. Also because it gets her away from listening to her mother constantly bickering at her father on the phone. Her father walked out on her Mother last year because she’d gotten too fat.
“Fat,” Marella’s mother has told her, “is a terrible sounding word. We’re Rubenesque.” Then she whipped out a big art history book and thumbed the pages until she got to a painting of a woman with lips the color of raspberries and pink rolls of flesh, wearing a string of pearls and nothing else.
“She,” Marella’s mother said, stabbing a finger at the picture’s plump hip, “was the ideal for beauty in those days.”
Marella’s not convinced. Her Mother dresses in ankle length jumpers that fit her like feed sacks on an overstuffed scarecrow. Her father’s new girlfriend is a tiny thing. She looks more like his daughter than his girlfriend in her tight jeans and baby-T’s. Marella wishes that she could wear baby-T’s but she’s already got a bigger chest than the girlfriend will ever have so she prefers her T-shirts baggy.
She’s not jealous of the girl who can’t act but she is a little jealous of Claire. Marella’s mother calls them Mutt and Jeff because Claire’s head barely reaches Marella shoulder. She thinks Claire is beautiful because Claire is petite and has blue eyes. And Claire has only her mother to contend with. Her father lives somewhere else, outside of the U.S. A. Marella thinks that’s really exotic, that Claire’s father lives in another country.
Claire thinks it's kind of exotic too to have a father who lives on an island nobody else has ever heard of. One of the Caribbean Islands. She doesn’t see him that much, but she talks to him all the time and he’s back for a while every summer. Last year, when Marella’s father left her Mother Claire tried to be sympathetic but she didn’t really understand how Marella could miss him so much. Claire’s never lived with her father and the one time she spent more than a week at his place in Boston, she was ready to come home to her own bed by the beginning of week two.
“Two people don’t have to live together to be good parents,” Claire’s mother says. “They just have to love their kids together.”
Claire figures her mother and father have done a pretty good job of that. When they talk they spend a lot of time complimenting each other on what a good job they’ve done of raising her. And there’s her father’s girlfriend. Claire adores her. She adores her thick straight white blonde hair and her big hands. Those hands are always making things. Paintings, and mosaics and pottery. She has a deep calm voice. Claire’s frizzy haired mother can be shrill. Claire’s father’s girlfriend clearly loves Claire back. In the winters, when they’re in the Caribbean, on their island, she’s the one who writes and sends photos and sketches and brings a present when they come home. This year it was a see through plactic poncho printed all over with brightly colored flowers.
“The islanders love the rain,” Claire’s father’s girlfriend said in her calm voice when she spread the poncho out to show off its scalloped edge.
It’s Wednesday night at the Grange Hall. Tech week. Time to iron out the rough spots in the play, to make sure the lighting works, that all of the props are ready, that the sets will hold together when they’re rolled on and off the stage. The set designer looks worried. She’s wearing a paint spattered denim shirt and stained khakis. She thought this was going to be an easy way to make a few extra bucks after work. The stagehand pushes the set and a shelf falls just missing the girl who is playing Anne.
“I cannot have this sort of thing,” the Director shouts. “I can’t have all this noise and commotion while my actors are rehearsing. You are going to have to do this another time.”
“There is no other time," the Set Designer shouts back. “In case you haven’t been checking your calendar, tomorrow night is opening night and unless you want your little star over there to get beaned by pieces of flying set you’re just going to have to work around me tonight.”
“Maybe her little star will get knocked out,” Marella whispers to Claire and Claire, her voice rising a little too high, replies, “I’m glad we’re downstage in all of our scenes.”
“Claire,” the Director says turning towards her, dragging out the single syllable, “Claaaaaaaaaire” until it stretches and sags like a strip of taffy. “What did I tell you before?”



Opening night. Hustle, bustle. Backstage; finishing touches. Downstairs; costumes, makeup. Marella and Claire wait their turns for the makeup lady to fuss with their hair, brush on some blush, apply their lipstick, smooth a little shadow over their eyes, when the fight begins.
“Out. I want her out. Either she goes or I go.”
The Director is shrieking at the producer. He looks exasperated. His salt and pepper hair is way too long, his glasses are too big and his complexion has gone so sallow he looks like he should be home in bed sipping tea.
“I’ve done the best I could do under the circumstances, difficult circumstances,” he says. “She said she knew what she was doing.”
The producer and the Director both glare at the Set Designer.
“If one more damned thing falls off that set or squeaks or squeals during my play I’m going to kill you. Do you hear me. Kill you. So you better shore everything up and get the hell out of here before the show starts. Get far away, somewhere where I can’t find you,” the Director says.
The producer shrugs and looks from the Set Designer to the Director and back again. The actors have all heard the commotion. The adults try to go about their business as if nothing is happening. The kids have all crammed into the dressing room door to try to catch a glimpse of what’s going on.
“Very well,” the Set Designer says. “I’m out of here.”
She makes a big show of gathering her things; some loose tools and a plastic tackle box, and she’s gone.
Claire and Marella love a good fight. This was an especially nasty one. It’s been brewing for weeks and the girls couldn’t wait to see how it was going to turn out, to find out who would win although they’d both been in enough plays to know, no Director, no show.
Marella never heard her mother and father fight like that before he left. She came home one day and it seemed that her father was just gone for no reason. No warning, not unless you count the stacks of Lean Cuisines her father kept buying and stuffing into the freezer. They’re still there, uneaten.
And Claire, sometimes she wishes somebody, anybody really, would put up a fight about something, anything. Everyone in her family is so nice, so polite, even though she’s overheard her mother talking to her older sisters late at night about how, he hasn’t paid child support in years but somehow he can afford to spend the winters in Anguilla. And her sisters just sort of “uh huh” her mother. They’ve got their own problems with their own father.
Sometimes Claire feels like she’s sitting on top of one of the dormant volcanoes she’s been studying in school this year. She feels like a volcanologist, looking for signs of when it’s going to blow; maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe never - best to just go about your business, trying not to jump whenever you feel a little rumble.
The audience begins to file in, what there is of it; mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, brothers and sisters. The word must have gotten out that the show isn’t really ready. It’s opening night and the attendance is sparse. They take their seats in the folding chairs and flip through their programs to scan the cast list for the names of their future stars. The house lights go down. The curtain is open. The stage is dark except for stage right where a young girl in a plain dress, off-white pinafore and quaint straw hat stands in a tight spotlight next to a battered suitcase. As the stage lights come up to illuminate the scene she begins to speak.
“Ugh! She’s just as bad tonight as she was at the dress rehearsal,” Marella says to Claire. Marella pulls at the waist of the underskirt the costumer found for her. It’s lacy and white but it’s too long.
“Try rolling it up at the waist,” Claire says. Her frilly white shirt and green flowered skirt fit perfectly. She has a big black satin bow tied in the back of her hair.
“It’ll make me look even fatter than I already am,” Marella says, trying to hike the skirt up but it keeps sliding back down.
“You’ll trip on it if you don’t roll it up.”
Marella looks around to see if anyone is looking before she picks up the bottom of the skirt and bites into it about three inch from the hem. She chews a hole, and with one efficient rip, tears it all the way around until she’s left with a strip of white cloth hanging from her hand. She rolls it up like a bandage and stuffs it into the pocket of the dress.
“There,” Marella says. Claire just shakes her head. It’s time for them to go onstage. Marella follows Claire out of the wings and they take their places on a wooden bench at the front edge of the stage well away from the teetering walls of the set. They’re transported back in time to a provincial Canadian schoolroom at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The rest of the cast plods through the play but Claire and Marella really get into their scenes, acting out the nasty girl cliques that aren’t so far from what really happens at their own schools. The set holds together. The light cues are right on. Claire thinks the girl who plays Anne is doing a little better job than she did in rehearsals, and she is cute. The audience laughs when they’re supposed to. After their scenes Claire and Marella play cards with the other kids until the curtain call. They go on stage in groups to take their bows, starting with the bit players. Claire and Marella stand off to one side with their group as the featured players begin to crowd the stage.
Staring out at the empty seats, at the scattered parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins trying to clap loud enough to make it sound like there’s a crowd, Claire and Marella watch as the Director, who is sitting in the front row, claps louder than anyone else when the girl who plays Anne takes her bow. She looks at the Director and squinches up her face and the Director claps like the kid is Greta Garbo making her stage debut in Ninotcha or Queen Christina or something like that, and the other actors cringe and when the Director smiles again it’s with that face; her head cocked to one side, a half smile and a coy squint and Claire and Marella both feel a pang of they’re not sure what. And then Marella elbows Claire, and Claire elbows her back, and they both roll their eyes.