Wednesday was a big day. The big day, from a certain point of view. Our first Cedars preview, the first performance of the play in front of a real audience, and a paying audience at that. People who might resent it if they don’t feel sufficiently entertained. It’s not quite as big as the actual, official opening, I suppose — all of us involved in the production regard the four preview performances as still being part of the development process, a final chance to revise and refine the piece before the run is underway — but still, we’ve finally reached the place where…well, choose your own cliché. Where the rubber meets the road? Or that lovely castration metaphor from Washington politics: Where it comes to the nut-cutting? Anyway, you get the idea. A lot is hanging in the balance. And it’s what Norman Mailer used to call “an existential moment.” You have no idea what you’re going to encounter until it actually starts to happen.
And then, well…talk about your existential moments. When I got to the theater, bag lunch in hand, a little after noon, for our final rehearsal, I was greeted with the news that James Naughton had had a bad bicycle accident that morning, was now in the hospital, and the evening’s performance — indeed the entire run of the play — might be in jeopardy. Keira Naughton, at this moment a daughter much more than a director, was at the hospital with her father. The tech crew was continuing with their work, experimenting with lighting cues and sound cues, but it was all in a vacuum, and with a huge question mark hanging over our heads. Was Jim in serious jeopardy? Would the performance be canceled? Was all this activity, and the previous three weeks’ intense work, in vain?
No one seemed to know anything. I left the theater — there was nothing useful for me to do there — and emailed Keira, expressing both personal concern and professional apprehension. She wrote back that they were still waiting for test results, and then added humorously that Jim wasn’t “acting any weirder than usual.”
And then there was nothing to do but wait. And worry. And then, finally, about four hours later, Betsy Selman, our stage manager, emailed me to say that Jim was in the theater and the show would go on. He later told me that he had walked home from the spill and had felt okay, a little bruised, a little shaken up, but everything essentially intact. But he had taken a bad knock on his head, and remembering the terrible tragedy that had befallen Miranda Richardson, who had also felt okay in the immediate aftermath of her skiing accident, decided it would be the better part of valor to check himself into a hospital and get some tests done. Well, thank goodness he’d been wearing a helmet when he took his tumble; otherwise, the outcome might have been very different. But the tests came out negative, and he was able to perform.
And perform he did. A few line stumbles, but he gave a great performance. Electrifying, really. We had excellent audience response, and that was far from predictable, since some of the material in the play is quite disturbing, even potentially offensive. Jim received a much-deserved standing ovation at the end. And the audience wasn’t even aware of the morning’s accident! They weren’t applauding his courage or fortitude, they were applauding his acting.
For me, the most touching response afterward was from the festival’s Artistic Director, Kate Maguire. She was full of enthusiasm for the play and of course for Jim’s masterly performance. She told me it had brought her to tears several times. And I was especially touched because she had taken a huge chance by selecting this play for the festival’s only premiere; it had no track record at all, and in no way is it an obvious crowd-pleaser. That she’d retained her enthusiasm for it meant a lot to me. More than I could express to her last night.
I joined Jim, Keira, and some of the crew for drinks at a nearby tavern after we’d left the theater. Jim and I, who hadn’t eaten before the show, had snacks as well, but alcoholic beverages were the main point of the exercise. And while we waited to be served, Keira looked across the table at her father and delivered the line of the night, the ultimate summation of what we’d all been through over the last twelve hours: “You must be the only man on the planet who had a CAT-scan and starred in a play all on the same day,” she said.