It’s always a bit strange to visit this place we called home for over a decade. But less so now than in previous visits. It has always had, previously, the feeling of unfinished business, the sense that there was some fault in how I played the hand I was dealt, and I could have done better or called this home longer.
But I don’t feel that now. I feel happy to see the familiar and unfamiliar, enjoying it not exactly as a tourist because I can’t really fill those shoes.
I can only imagine what this might or could mean to Michelle. She was here as an actor in this glorious company for eight years, I believe, to my three. She played Queens and other aristocracy, bitter sisters, a sought-after starlet and many others. She brandished and dallied with sword play and word play and delighted audiences for that period of time.
We roll her chair up to the bricks in front of the Bowmer Theater. I have a silly notion. I want her to be recognized. I want someone, a patron, I suppose, to look at her with tilted head and ask, “Is that Michelle Morain?” It doesn’t happen, as we are watching the matinee audience entering, now using QR codes instead of tickets. But it’s pretty much the same vibe or expectation, of anticipation of a good time, perhaps more than good, perhaps transformative. I don’t know what the show is.
Finally, I notice that one of the ushers looks a few years older than myself and I walk over to her. “Hi. How long have you lived here?” I ask. “Oh, long time, since 1985.” “Do you remember Michelle Morain?” She nods, “Of course.” I motion to Michelle in her chair, sitting in the shade with her back to the theater. The woman nods and I’m expecting perhaps a statement about a show or some such, a performance that transformed her. She looks at me. “My husband has Alzheimer’s.”
We have a fantastic visit with Paul Barnes and Jim Edmondson in their lovely home that backs to acres of public lands. Over strawberries and quiche and something outlandish with blueberries we catch up. Jim is doing so well and that fills my heart and I find that tears lurk just below what they see. Michelle is in good spirits and smiles and seems to recognize them for a moment here and there.
We are, all of us, members of the previous generation that worked the Ashland theaters. I had the privilege to work with Jim three times, twice as an actor and once being directed by him. His voice will always live in my consciousness, his sincerity and generosity not just as a performer which was beyond measure, but simply as a human being. Jim loves people and he, like Michelle’s Bainbridge uncle, has sent ripples through our world, ripples of kindness and a smile that comes right from the heart.
Paul and I share a bond from the road, and I had the pleasure of working for him as a teacher and later being directed by him in that biggest of roles, Hamlet, in rep with Bottom.
I remind him of my favorite Director note I ever received. I was backstage at Dress Rehearsal for Midsummers about to go on as Bottom with no shoes, the costumers didn’t have them yet. It seemed fitting since I really didn’t know what my character was. I had put most of my thoughts and work into Hamlet. Go figure. But Paul came up and noticed the shoes and we chatted about that and then, as his exit line, he said, “Oh, Peter, about what you’re doing as Bottom; try something else.”
I love that man not just for this outlandish note given just days away from opening, but that he knew it would work with me.
We tell tales and catch up and commiserate on how things have changed. I have been thinking a lot about this on the journey because in the Bay Area, Eugene and here I have heard similar sentiments. The watchword now is “relevance,” which means that the plays of Shakespeare must be MADE relevant and to do so often means to rewrite them, or to overlay them with other themes that are considered important today. Of course, the veiled insult in this concept is the idea that what we did was irrelevant. I defy anyone who has seen Paul’s or Jim’s direction, Jim or Michelle’s or Rex Raybold’s or a host of others stage works to say they were irrelevant.
I try with many words to describe what the dominant philosophy was in our heyday.
“Do the play,” Paul says. And that pretty much says it all.
Mo is a gentleman throughout all this banter and Paul mentions that they are in the market for a dog and wonders if I could just leave him. Mo’s work is done.
We head out to a wonderful lunch at an outdoor restaurant bordering Lithia Park which has not visibly changed. It is still stunning and filled with life. It’s a good lunch.
The next day we have a big gathering at Suzanne and John’s house. She has told me that her backyard isn’t “super fancy” or something. “We have an umbrella.” I’m expecting a patch of grass in the sun next to a rusty RV but their yard is lovely, bursting with trees and flowers and it wraps all around the house offering shade at different times of the day.
Many friends come, many I have not seen in thirty years, probably most since the get together we had on Scenic Drive to welcome Matt and Mika to the USA. Michelle and I had driven by the Scenic house earlier and the Sycamore tree we planted after our wedding in 1989 is now a thriving shade tree. “I planted that tree.”
It is beyond good to hug these fellow artists, so immediate and warm that I completely forget to take photos. Everyone looks really great, so much life and energy still radiating out, giving energy.
Michelle has a tough day with her head down towards her chest. She has head-down and lean-over days and it’s harder to connect with her but there are moments of connection. Each person who comes embraces her, takes the time to speak with her and hold her or sit with her. My heart is full because this is all I wanted, I wanted her to bathe in this love and I know this might not be super easy for everyone. It’s hard to see a comrade lowered by this disease, so much lost. It might not even be easy for her, so much to say and little way to express it.
Dee speaks to me in that vital voice of hers, “She’s in there.” Dee’s husband had Alzheimer’s and she knows. We are, in that moment, a support group of two.
The gathering thins out and we prepare to leave only to discover on checking that Michelle needs a full clean up and it’s not pretty. Kimberley Barry happens to be right there and asks me if I need help. I have learned to say “yes.” I say it because it’s true but also because, though I know I could do this alone and that would seem to make sense, to do this private thing in private, I also know that people love to help, and Kimberley has been a great help to Michelle and me. She stage-managed and planned our wedding.
We work together and she either knows that to do or quickly picks up on it. I never ask her if she has experience in these matters. It’s a particularly nasty clean up and at one point I ask her how things are looking on her side. “There’s more work to do,” she says and inwardly I smile but I also feel like crying. A good mix. What would you expect a Stage Manager to say?!
“There’s more work to do.”
We say our goodbyes by the Bus and Mo gets some fond farewells. Michelle is still pretty inward, but no one is trying to fix her, which is best. I get some help loading her in.
And we are off, finding food and beating the heat back to the Asha Retreat paradise, my heart a bit heavy with the weight of the unseen connections all around us, connections mostly to the past.
“There’s more work to do.”