Playing with memories

Between Gettysburg and Chambersburg sits the nationally-honored Totem Pole Playhouse.Every couple of weeks, I get to write about a performance at the playhouse. Plays such as “Driving Miss Daisy” and, this week, “Mamma Mia.”

For a guy who has been practicing journalism as long as I – nearly a half century – it is kind of a weird gig. On the one hand, I’m writing a news story: the play was on stage, some people had starring roles, it will be playing for certain dates – stuff like that. On the other hand, I get to opine, just a little, with adjectives – rocking, rollicking, “Chick flick,” for instance. Those are not words normally expected in regular reporting.

I enjoy plays. A bad play is better than a good movie. And I’ve yet to see a bad play.

I’ve been attending plays for a long time, beginning when my mom took me to summer stock in Lakewood. In those days, I saw plays such as “Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “The Music Man,” and stars including Jimmy Durante and Mary Martin. And I got to go back stage to meet the players, making even more real the characters in the story.

It was a magic time. I remember that I never actually separated the players from their onstage characters. Later, I learned the phenomenon is called “suspension of disbelief” – the ability to watch what was happening on stage and think it was real – while later talking to the person who had been onstage. That was, and is, one of the magic things about the stage.

I also saw a movie this week. It was OK, though the story was rather predictable, and bore little resemblance to its namesake television show. Denzel Washington plays “The Equalizer.” His name is Robert McCall, but in the 1980s TV series, Robert McCall was a retired British spy. But I never met Edward Woodward, who played in the series, and I’ll probably never meet Washington (unless he stars in a play at Totem Pole Playhouse – which could happen).

In the past two years, I have howdied with Melissa Gilbert, who played Totem Pole in “Steel Magnolias,” and who made her name as a child-actress in “Little House on the Prairie.” I met and chatted with Loretta Swit, who was Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the TV series, “M.A.S.H.” And there was Michael Learned, Jon-Boy’s TV mom, playing in “Driving Miss Daisy.”

I’ve met a bunch of young artists, as well, I’d like to think one day I will chat with and we will remember before they were famous, such as Emily Meredith, who Sunday played the part of Sophia in “Mamma Mia.” We do not need a ton of expensive – and superfluous – equipment and props and jiggly cameras when the characters actually breathe and sing and dance and make you believe, as they sit in a straight-back chair, for the better part of two hours, they are riding in a car.

Also, I met a group of young men who brought to life “The Million Dollar Quartet,” reprising Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. To watch a movie is to look at an image. A play makes us a part of the story, the actors are real people, alive among us, inviting us to share in their story.

The troupe, of which, Shakespeare said, we all are members, exists in our collective memory, like the plays in which they allow us to abandon, temporarily, our own roles and step through the proscenium into theirs.

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