Saturday, November 12, 2005

Act Two

Pancakes never consciously recalled the first time she saw her mother onstage, but it made a deep impression on her nonetheless. In many ways, it set the template for the most important relationships and decisions of her life. But at two years old, Pancakes hardly knew what it meant to see her mother on a theater stage, in costume and under bright lights, speaking words and articulating movements scripted by someone else.

It was best that Pancakes didn’t recall it, actually, because if she had, she would have been unable to avoid interpreting the incident as symbolic. She would have recognized it as the moment that set in motion many of the things that came later: her fascination with her Broadway star mother and their strained, distant relationship … her close, comforting relationship with her father and her tendency to overlook him … the seemingly predetermined career path she’d take between her mother’s connection with stagecraft and her father’s facility with the written word … her fixation on dazzle and spectacle … her ill fit in the company of others. And it all would have been too much, coming from her. She would have suggested that it hinted of destiny. Later, feeling intellectually foolish, she would have rescinded that statement entirely—all the while secretly believing it was true. If nothing else, she would at some point have written a play about it, and it seems almost a certainty that the ponderous heavy-handedness of the material would have consigned it to being one of her lesser works.

The moment in question occurred just a month after Pancakes’s second birthday, when she and her father flew for a two-week stay in London. There her mother, Lorinda, was nearing the end of a long run onstage in a popular revival of Lillian Hellman’s two-play cycle about a corrupt, avaricious family in the Old South. The flight so jetlagged Pancakes that she fell deeply asleep her first full night in England, while she and her father sat in the front row of the theater before the beginning of that evening’s performance. The play had begun its second act before she awoke for more than a few drowsy moments, and when she finally began to look around the darkened theater inquisitively, she eventually focused on the action taking place on stage. There, wheeling around with girlish delight and almost glowing with beauty and grace, was her mother! Pancakes was so surprised and excited that she cried out for her. A few members of the audience laughed quietly, a few others scowled in annoyance, and her father quickly hushed Pancakes before she yelled again. Lorinda, whose professionalism was honed up to and beyond a fault, seemed not to miss even a beat. Her sole glance of motherly concern toward the front row was so well disguised by her character’s animated mannerisms that no one other than she realized that she’d heard her daughter calling out for her at all.