Opposites Attract: A Story of Friendship (November 17, 2010)

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In the Fall of 1996, after a five week whirlwind summer tour of South Africa with the Chicago Children’s Choir, I found myself amidst the cornfields and animal dung that comprise the sights and smells of the University of Illinois campus at Urbana/Champaign. A concrete jungle girl through and through, and a self-described seasoned traveler, I was instantly dismayed by my new surroundings, so close to my hometown of Chicago (2.5 hours driving time) yet so far removed in the way of stimuli and heterogeneity.

The depression I felt upon unpacking my last box in the closet of a dorm room I had been assigned at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (abbreviated, “FAR” which also ironically matched the domicile’s lengthy distance from campus) had little to do with missing my family and high school friends. It’s like I sensed that the public transportation taking, museum exploring, library wandering, sensory overloaded childhood I had enjoyed was about to come to a four-year screeching halt and I was helpless to do anything about it. A girl who refused to adhere to the U. of I. motto of “Go Greek or Go Home!” had little choice but to keep her head down, get a job and study hard. Graduating and moving back to Chicago swiftly became my raison d’etre.

Completely unable to tolerate living with my mother for longer than necessary, I arrived on campus a few days earlier than the bulk of my fellow incoming freshman. The benefit to this domestic twitchiness is that I had a head start on securing one of the better paying off campus jobs. My work experience comprised to that point of volunteerism and the occasional Sunday selling newspapers, I knew I would need the advantage of time to convince local managers to take a chance on me.

I walked my way along the Campustown thoroughfare of Green Street one determined morning, hitting up every fast food joint I passed. Food service seemed like a noble and poetic start to my career. Surely Jane Austen had worked in a kitchen at some point. She did after all, have seven brothers and sisters in an era without microwaves. After a lengthy and measured debate between McDonald’s and Wendy’s, I accepted a job at the latter for the King’s Ransom of $4.75 an hour.

During my second week of employment, as I entered the back door and assumed my usual place at the fry station, I noticed a new girl working the grill. The way she handled a spatula told me this wasn’t her first time flipping hammies. I was instantly impressed, but simultaneously intimated by her short but solid stature, black lipstick and natural white blonde hair. Unsure how to introduce myself, this dynamic person beat me to the punch. Within a few minutes I learned that Theresa was a fellow freshman and resident of the same dorm. She was from a town about 45 minutes south of Champaign called Mattoon and had the most beguiling hint of a southern twang. When Theresa went on to inform me that she was a Wiccan, I nodded my head in befuddled agreement, realizing that there was an awful lot this supposedly worldly urbanite had to learn.

Over the course of the next four years, a lot of things would be taught to me by the woman I grew to know as “T.” She in turn affectionately labeled me “Becca Jo,” a tongue in cheek nod to my transplant from the nation’s third largest city to a town of 60,000. I would say that T and I became the yin to each other’s yang, but she always seemed a few steps ahead of me. T taught me how to smoke pot in a dorm room without eliciting notice (her trick involved an elaborate setup of dryer sheets and empty Mountain Dew bottles). I went on my first drunken hayride with Theresa and her family (and right afterward, stole my first golf cart), flashed truckers on the Interstate, went skinny dipping, hosted an epic Halloween party that remains the stuff of Chambana legend, and learned the meaning of the local “country run” pastime. I never knew living in the middle of nowhere could be so much fun until Theresa showed me how to survive.

Shortly after graduation, Theresa married her college sweetheart, a wonderful man named Jake, and they settled in Shelbyville, slightly father south than Mattoon. I returned to Chicago to start my career in corporate communications, and the City proceeded to beat me up a little harder than my idyllic childhood memories would have predicated. Adult life turned out to be every bit as difficult a transition as the one from high school to college. In the Fall of 2000, we had the benefit of email, and as the years passed, FaceBook, but T and I have always stuck to our pattern on keeping tabs on each other with old fashioned U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, a la the Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey characters from Beaches. There is no comparable feeling in life to that of getting an unexpected missive, tearing open the envelope, unfolding the pages and greedily consuming the private thoughts of a loved one.

Though we are separated by more than four hours driving time, and T has an all-consuming life that includes two young sons, a demanding job and a large extended family, we still find opportunities, stolen moments to reunite and reminisce. This week was one such occasion.

Anyone who has read my recent work knows that this is a particularly trying time. I am unemployed, at a crossroads in several personal relationships, and ready to be honest with myself about the fact that I may never be ready for motherhood. While that sits ok with me, there are a lot of implications in my world: disappointed in-laws, well-meaning friends and family who believe I have made a hasty, childhood-scarred decision, and a husband who wants me to leave the door open to adoption when I am not sure that I can. I can never express what a welcome refreshment it is to be able to sit across the table from a woman who knows me better at times than I know myself. Someone who has seen me at me worst, has watched me fail over and over again, yet still assiduously leaves a sense of the pride and affection she carries with my name on it.

Well known, long-term friendships are the ultimate gift – the present of unconditional love.

See you soon T. It’s about time for me to make my way through the corn again.

The Catch-22 Of Manners (June 12, 2010)

Whenever I pick up a Jane Austen novel, a work by the Bronte sisters, or one of many other classics of British literature, I am both thrilled and saddened to recognize myself in a world of slackened manners. On the one hand, keeping up with appearances and civilities seemed to be such an exhausting effort, one I just don’t have time for in my own life. I am not that great at remembering names, so how often would I redden in the face at having lost Mr. So and So’s surname? I would be a social pariah at the neighborhood ball in a flash.

On the other hand, people today are bracingly rude. I am not simply referring to the guy who steps on your toe in a crowded commuter train and never apologizes. Neither am I alluding to people who cut in line, take more than their portion, or burp in public. While all of these behaviors may be obnoxious, I am interested in the power of words and their varying effects. I both love and loathe that we live in a historical epoch where people will say just about anything to you, with zero regard for your feelings or their own image. This phenomenon is amplified when it comes to the Internet. The ability to be controversial from the safe confines of your home office seems to be empowering for many.

And that is terrific in a variety ways. We live in an alienated, siloed quasi-community. Many of us don’t engage with our physical neighbors anymore, but are able to carry on debates and conversations with other web surfers in Sri Lanka. There is something both strange and wonderful about that. As we become more fractious and divided in our personal politics, and lose the ability to make small talk with those we encounter while taking out the trash, at least we can form connections, somehow, some way. When we feel in our daily lives, that our little voice doesn’t matter, it is affirming to know that we can be heard (or read) by someone, somewhere.

At the same time, I wonder if these e-connections we are building across the world cause us to forget that we are actually interacting with people, not machines – people who have feelings and reactions that you cannot see while staring at a monitor. My personal rule of thumb is this: I will never write something that I am fearful or ashamed to say in public. However, this is clearly not general practice. When I read a news item on the web, or am directed to the latest hot You Tube video, I am often beyond appalled at the galling commentary I find at the end of the item. As a writer, a liberal and a human being, I cannot but champion free speech. It is simply lamentable that this right is often misconstrued as the right to be an arse.

There is no use hankering for a return to formality. Once lost, social fetters are not willingly recalled, and that is as it should be. I remind myself that I would not have liked to be a female in Austen’s time, treated as a simpleton and “protected” as an item of witless property. The liberty to express oneself often accompanies quantifiable improvements in social status, and I wouldn’t undo centuries of progress for anything. That said, it is hard not to feel wistful for the days when the days when people thought a bit before they spoke. Being a jerk just because you can is not an empowering exercise of your rights. Consideration can be trying, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the attempt a little more often.

Sense & Sensibility (May 12, 2015)

Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis)
Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis)

 

As the curtain fell on the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s winning production of “Sense and Sensibility,” we found ourselves reflecting on a number of parallels between the new musical and Disney’s 2013 animated juggernaut, “Frozen.” As directed by CST’s Artistic Director Barbara Gaines, the expansive, romantic novel, like the cartoon megahit, is intelligently distilled for audiences to its fundamental narrative — the love story of two fiercely devoted sisters. Here’s the take from two female reviewers sharing the work, Becky Sarwate and Beth Dugan.

Becky Sarwate
Also similarly to the wildly successful “Frozen,” the adventures of Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk) and Marianne Dashwood (Megan McGinnis) are traversed through a combination of spoken dialogue and song. And though my personal favorite, “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty,” is unlikely to capture the zeitgeist on a “Let It Go” scale, the score by Paul Gordon is competent. Not brilliant, but seamless and well-sung by the well-chosen cast.

But music aside, the beauty of any rendition of the Jane Austen treasure is the nuanced, accepting and trial-filled relationship between decorous and restrained elder sister Elinor and passionate, unbridled younger sibling Marianne. The ladies’ divergent approaches to emotional life, contained versus unchecked, are dramatically tested by the relationships that unfold on the page and stage.

Wayne Wilcox as Edward Ferrars, teams with Rietkerk to absolutely nail the emotional game of chicken played between Elinor and Edward, founded on modesty and lack of presumption rather than craft. Wilcox’s unique brand of awkwardness made this Ang Lee devotee forget all about Hugh Grant.

McGinnis is given a script that renders the early Marianne a touch more self-aware and likable, which only serves her general predilection for blunt honesty. McGinnis’ grasp of irony and comedic timing are something special, and even those devoted Austenphiles who know the story’s denouement well will worry and root for Marianne’s happiness. And in another positive twist with this rendering, the chastened woman who marries Colonel Brandon (Sean Allan Krill) seems a lot happier with her choice than her literary counterpart.

And who wouldn’t be happy to land Krill’s Brandon? Willoughby, Schmilloghby, with all due respect to the talented Peter Saide. The material and the performance strike the right notes of the character’s steady stability, while imbuing him with more elements of lighthearted fun. Krill’s rendition of the aforementioned “Wrong Side of Five and Thirty” is heartbreaking, endearing and beautifully performed. Krill is the standout in a uniformly gifted cast.

“Sense and Sensibility” runs through mid-June. It is an all-ages must for Austen fans, and a fine time for anyone who appreciates good storytelling and a win for sisterly affection.

Beth Dugan
As a huge Jane Austen fan (“Sense and Sensibility” is my #3 favorite), I was elated to see this classic reimagined as a musical. The Dashwood sisters are some of my favorite siblings in literature, and the performances by Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis did them justice.

The inevitable stripping down of the plot was a testament to how subtlety complex Austen’s works are. Though they seem like simple stories about women trying to get husbands and dealing with family matters, they are nuanced, multi-layered and robust.

With the loss of Mrs. Dashwood, the younger sister Margaret and the majority of the minor character that add such richness to the plot, the production still wove an engaging and entertaining story.

The difference in the way Elinor and Marianne are portrayed is palpable. Marianne is less self-involved, more restrained and therefore, easier to like. Much of her obsession over Willoughby was cut, rendering her more a figure of pity rather than a creator of her own fate, as she is in the book.

Elinor is lacking her lightly sardonic wit and teasing manner, and is left with only her duty and practicality. With the third sister and widowed mother missing from the story, and from the list of Elinor’s burdens, she just comes across as a wet blanket. Though the luminous Rietkerk imbues her with life and verve, it is hard to respect Elinor as the stalwart rock of her family that she is.

Paul Gordon’s book, music and lyrics compliment the story well, as it is moves through its many moods of somber melancholy, joyful and finally celebratory. Though the songbook may not contain show-stoppers or hit tunes, the songs moved the story forward and add another layer to the performances.

The scene-stealing performance by Wayne Wilcox as Edward Ferrars is a high point of the show. He’s comedic timing for this version of Edward are perfect and a lovely foil for this version of Elinor, who is only dutiful and practical with little of her light humor and sardonic wit from the original story.

Director Barbara Gaines continues her winning streak here. “Sense and Sensibility” is a wonderful show, full of life and song. The performances are strong and memorable. Jane Austen has been given her due.