Southern Saunterings: Act 1, Scene 1

By Emily Clay


For some time now, I’ve intended to launch a regular blog column, Southern Saunterings, that will share reflections of life growing up in the South. Our culture is unique, and those of us who are blessed to have lived our entire lives in the South will always have stories to tell. Seeing Town Theatre’s performance of the Addams Family Musical this week prompted me to take the plunge since local theater was very much a part of my childhood.

My very first time seeing a play was in 1965 when I was 5 years old. It was thrilling for three reasons: my beloved grandparents were taking me, I was instructed to wear my favorite party dress with my patent leather Mary Janes, and I had no idea what a play was. We arrived at the small theater and found our seats rather close to the front. I sat in between my grandparents and marveled over all of the ladies and gentlemen, attired in pretty dresses and handsome suits, meandering to their seats around the circular stage. I could clearly see the faces of guests across the stage… the theater was that small.

I’m not sure what my young mind expected as the lights dimmed since there was no screen for projecting a movie, however, I was quite startled when the “play” took place with actors within a stone’s throw of my seat. The close proximity certainly cemented the reality of the story since I was right there with the characters for the adventure. It was thrilling at that… with a suspenseful storyline.

At one point, the beloved and beautiful heroine was about to be attacked by a wretched man, sneaking up behind her. We all sat holding our breaths as he got closer and closer to her.  My heart raced…and I realized I must help. “Watch out!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Then I jumped to my feet. “Behind you!”

The actors froze on stage, and the theater erupted in laughter. I was quite confused. My beloved grandfather (Pa to me, but Tom Gignilliat to the rest of the world) removed his hat from his lap and pulled me quickly into his arms. “Emily, you must be quiet,” he whispered gently in my ear. “The actors are pretending like they do in a movie. Don’t worry about her ­­— it’s all part of the play.”

What a way to learn that a play was not real life. Nonetheless, I decided the safest place to sit for the remainder of the performance was in Pa’s lap, because the suspense was far from over. Plus, I eventually slid right back into the mindset that the stage was actually a real life adventure.

Still a little unpolished as a theater buff, I was soon invited to another play with Mamie and Pa. As Mamie tied the bow on my light yellow dress, she gave some well-needed advice about theater protocol. I took in her words as I admired her amethyst suit and her glittery gold charm bracelet. I wanted to please her so I was determined to be quiet as a mouse and good as gold.

This time the play was a musical and was beyond my young imagination of entertainment. I well remember the name of it: Gypsy. Sound familiar to any of you? If not, let me share with you that my grandparents had no idea that this play was a strip tease! It highlighted the life of the rather notorious Gypsy Rose Lee with songs that rocked Broadway, including Let Me Entertain You.

Now, it was Mamie and Pa’s turn to want to yell mid-act. I think their choice words might have been: “Stop! Please stop!”

Gypsy was far more eye popping than any entertainment I’d ever seen. I will never forget the bump de bump music as the curvaceous and beautiful ladies ripped their clothes off to reveal bikinis that had blinking lights, everywhere. I was mesmerized! But my grandparents were horrified. In fact, there was no discussion of the play during the entire ride home. At the time, I thought it was because the engine in Pa’s 1955 light green sedan hummed so loudly.

The next day, we went to church and then out to lunch with all of the family. When my unknowing aunt asked how the play was, I jumped up and, to the best of my 5-year-old ability, did the bump de bump dance that had enthralled me the night before. While I, of course, kept my clothes on, I certainly gave voice to where the blinking lights would be if only I had one of those fabulous bikinis. Oh, my poor grandparents. So much for hoping that Gypsy Rose Lee had slipped past my understanding.

There is truly nothing quite like local theater. In keeping with my grandparents’ tradition, I have often taken our three girls to enjoy productions at the wonderful theaters we have in Columbia. In fact, I took Margaret, our oldest, to her first play when she was 3. It was a stellar performance of South Pacific at the Town Theatre with a live orchestra. Since then, we have returned time and again for endless productions that have further embedded a love of theater in our hearts.

13164360_10154198747461528_4829720089937211354_nThe current production of The Addams Family Musical is as stunning as any play the Town Theatre has ever produced. It is a true show stopper with Sheldon Paschal as Morticia and Clayton King as Gomez, both leading a magnificent cast. The two dynamos can sing, dance and act as well as anyone on Broadway…and yet they chose Columbia as their home to entertain. The supporting cast of The Addams Family as well as the sets, the choreography and the costumes surpassed any of my preconceived expectations. Mamie and Pa, no doubt, would have enjoyed it as much as I did.

If local theater hasn’t become a part of your routine in the Midlands, then you have a real treat in store for you. Call the Town Theatre for tickets as The Addams Family runs through the end of May. Don’t wait another minute before you start making some great family memories!

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