Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias, Act One

Oh God, Body Grease! “Murder in the Magnolias”, Act One
                In 1981 our high school drama club selected “Murder in the Magnolias” as their spring play. It was written in 1980 by Tim Kelly and is a spoof of “Southern plays” – Tennessee Williams and his ilk.
                I tried out for and was cast as Thornbird Chickenwing III, a Tennessee Williams-like poet who has multiple personalities. It is recommended by the author that he is played slightly effeminate. In one scene he is in drag, playing his own sister; and in another his grandfather’s grandfather.
                “Murder in the Magnolias” is appropriately silly with lots of caricatures insulting each other. The humor is broad and slapstick is present but fitting – hopefully it won’t be too over-the-top. Most of the humor comes from the characters verbally one-upping each other (“…any fool knows that.” “You know it…”). Very few characters possess any reason or common sense.
                It is a murder mystery. The mystery is not only who did it, but also is how can this motley crew of morons and locos identify the killer before anyone else drops off. And bodies drop in every act. Part of the fun in being in the audience is guessing who is next as well as who dunnit.
                We never got to perform the play in 1981. Our director, the art teacher, was fresh out of college and only about four years younger than the oldest of us. She was a very sweet lady but unable to handle the rougher students. She didn’t know how to crack the whip. That’s important when trying to herd students.
                But the students in the drama club weren’t the ones taking advantage of her meekness. The students who really gave her trouble were the ones waiting for our sixteenth birthday so we could leave school and get working at jobs we’d have the rest of our lives. You could do that back then.
                There was another problem that finally put the fatal wound in our production.
                Being of that age, the student cast had hormones a-ragin’. When one cast member was done with his part, he whisked himself away to his girlfriend’s house in another town. More than once the director wanted to rehearse the scene again, but the principal player of the scene was basking in the glow of love.
                The lead was replaced with another girl (I’m not being a pig here – we’re dealing with fifteen and sixteen-year-olds – hence “girls” and “boys”…). Why she left I do not remember. Trouble was the replacement had just won a fierce battle with the other female lead over rightful possession of a boyfriend. The two former female leads were best friends. The replacement not only “stole” the boyfriend of one cast member, but replaced that cast member’s friend in the play. Fur flew.
                And our meek director was powerless to knock heads together and douse everyone with cold water. With less than a month to go half the cast walked out. We remaining cast discussed putting on a play of small skits we would write ourselves. I didn’t think it would be very successful or funny so I left too. A few of the walk-outs were sitting on some sidewalk steps near the school and I congratulated them on their courage – they left the sinking ship just in time.
                No play that year.
                Flash forward almost 33 years. My friend Stephanie announced on her Facebook page that the Sparta (Illinois) Community Chorus was putting on “Murder in the Magnolias” as their spring play and they were holding open auditions December 14th.
                “I still have the playbook,” I posted.
                “You should try out,” Stephanie said.
                “I don’t think the dress in Act Two would fit me anymore,” I said.
                I thought seriously about it, talked it over with my wife and decided to try out for a part. A small part.
                After high school the only acting I did was for a local children’s program produced by the PBS affiliate. I wrote for the show and was asked to play the part of the evil Count Puzzleton during the show’s pledge-break extravaganza. I agreed. As was the case with most local PBS productions – it was cheesy and over-acted. But I had a lot of fun!
                I was a DJ for ten years and did some stand-up in Springfield, IL. The little stand-up I did in Carbondale was from introducing the main act at the city’s “comedy club” (read: bar with a stage and microphone – I think the biggest talent we got to perform there was Emo Phillips. No slight to Emo, he’s very funny, but that was the biggest name we drew).
                So aside from a few personas, imitations and performances of “skits” during commercials (“Gee, Jane, this coffee tastes like shit.” “He never talks about my coffee that way at home…” “Then try new Folger’s Carcinogenic…”); I haven’t acted since 1986. And even that was on television where I could do it take after take if we goofed up.
                As a lawyer I “act” in court, I suppose. Sometimes a bit of faux outrage or an ad-libbed quip can save the day (this bit is part of a legal record of a case; I am quite proud of it: Judge: “This was filed last night at 8:00, (turns to me) Counsel have you had a chance to review this?” Me: “Your honor, I have a ten-month old baby at home, I was asleep by eight – I was in bed by ten…”).
                The last time I trod the boards was in 1982 as Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” – my senior year with the Coulterville High School Drama Club.
                At that same time I played an extra (George) in the SpartaCommunity Chorus (it was called something else back then) in “Oklahoma”. I had one line – “sounded like a shot” and danced in the fantasy sequence. OK! Yow!
                December 14th was the day of my family’s Christmas party. That evening my wife and I went to Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis to watch the Symphony perform Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas. I wouldn’t be able to sneak in an audition that day.
                No problem, said Stephanie, you can audition the next day, the 15th. There are a few others auditioning that day as well. And so I agreed to audition. My daughter stayed overnight at my sister’s while we went to the concert; and Sunday morning it was back to Coulterville to pick her up; then to Sparta to audition.
                I last saw Stephanie in 1996 at the hospital at which she worked when my father was admitted there – otherwise I had not seen her since 1982 (Facebook pics aside). She is a year younger than I and we lived across the street from one another. I’ve known her since our toddlerdom. It was wonderful to see her again.
                At the audition, I tried out for two of the smaller parts – Colonel Rance Chickenwing – the Big Daddy of the play and its first victim – and Thornbird. When I was done reading, my daughter piped out from the audience in her four-year-old voice, “Are you done, Daddy?”
                “Everyone’s a critic,” I told the four judges, two of whom were Stephanie and her adult daughter. They all laughed. When I was done they asked if I was willing to do two roles, as the number of men auditioning was small.
                “Sure,” I said with more confidence that I would have had if I thought about it. They gave me a copy of the playbook – in much better shape than my original – and thanked me. I was hopeful – they wouldn’t give me a playbook if they didn’t intend for me to be in it, would they?
                We drove seventy miles to our house; my wife put my daughter down for her nap and I stayed outside to repair the Christmas lights that had been savaged by a snowstorm of a few days before. When I went inside my wife said Stephanie had called – I had been cast as Rance AND Thornbird!
                Why? Why do I want to do this? Why drive seventy miles one-way two or three times a week and leave my wife and four-year-old alone all evening?
                I could be cavalier and say it is because I am a big ham and love the sounds of applause, but it is more than that.
                Perhaps it is a bit of mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a Harley or a canoe, I perform in a play.
Perhaps it is something from my past that was left incomplete and I want closure. But it’s not as if cancelling the play in 1981 scarred me for life.
                Perhaps it is a little of both… plus …
                I’m doing it to give me something fun to do. To meet some old friends and make some new ones.
                My work is challenging – I’m not doing this to escape work drudgery – but there is a sameness to it and being in a silly play will help me escape that a while. For the past four years it has been me, my wife and the baby. The baby is starting to get older and has her little friends at the day care; my wife sings in the choir in church and during Christmas and Easter practices with them. This would be … my thing to do.
                I knew I would have sympathetic audition judges – I had practiced these lines during the first few months of the Reagan administration and knew the play – and that gave me the courage to want to do it. I don’t jump into anything with both feet – I’m definitely the kind to stick my toe in first.
                Will this lead to more? If it works out, I hope so. It would be fun to be in more plays and musicals. Either in Sparta or (gasp) locally. It could be the start of a fun hobby.
                Future blogs in the next few months will review the characters and update on how rehearsals are going, etc.
                When I first considered trying out and performing in the play; I said it could be a lot of fun.
                Or it could be murder…
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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One thought on “Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias, Act One

  1. Pingback: Unnecessary Farce, Act One | Currytakeaways

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