Monday, June 1
(Sixty-four days to opening)
Last night, Gina said, “I swear, after all these years, I’m beginning to see the actual contours of your capacity for worrying. My mother’s got nothing on you. Come on. We had a good spring, and now we’re in the money. What is it that stresses you about a new, fully funded, and expanded theater for the fall? We got King Lear in the fall. You keep expecting the other shoe to drop.”
And he had gone to bed determined to do better, had kissed her, murmured “Night,” and pulled the top sheet up over his shoulders, hearing the breezes outside, and appreciating that the spring season had indeed been successful. He fell asleep almost immediately—unlike the previous five nights—and slept deeply. But the predawn hour had come with a sensation of having dreamed someone put a finger to the middle of his chest and then pushed him away, followed immediately by anxiety over the theater going dark through the whole summer season while the renovation and expansion took place. It had already been dark for nine weeks (the renovation had at last begun after several delays) and it would be dark on into August. They would have a new theater, true, and the first production would be King Lear, the one play in the world he loved most; but a whole season was a long time. People might drift away; there were so many other things to do; audiences could dwindle. The board hadn’t included him in most of its decisions as the new circumstance unfolded. He had not even met the principals, and he was the theater manager.
Not yet five o’clock. The moon was bright. From the bed, he saw tree shadows on the lawn outside the window. She slept peacefully at his side, though a train horn trailed across the dark like grief. He lay quiet and quite still. He had no memory of what had been in the dream that woke him. He drew a long breath and whispered the word he had lately taken to repeating, inwardly or aloud, like a sort of verbal amulet or charm: “Ridiculous.”
Gina stirred now, turned, and put one arm over his chest, sighing. He breathed the fragrance of her hair. When she shifted again and snuggled with her back to him, he reached for his cell phone on the nightstand and looked at the day’s news. A Norwegian cargo ship had sunk off the coast of Vietnam. Eighteen dead. “The first thing you do in the mornings,” she had also said last night, “is look at the bad news on that phone. Leave the phone at least until you’ve had some time to collect yourself.” But collecting himself meant worrying. He put the cell back down and, soundlessly as possible, rose from the bed.
Anxiety was a natural enough response to the times, wasn’t it? Well, he was a man approaching forty with a profound increasing sense of frailty and susceptibility. Ridiculous. His heart skipped a beat. He realized that was what had awakened him from whatever the dream was.
She yawned and moaned, “Not yet.”
“I’ll wake you in half an hour.”
He padded downstairs, turning on lights as he went. Opening the front door on the cool, moonlit morning, he collected The Appeal from the front stoop. (Nothing on the net would ever replace the morning paper; he was a man of certain set habits.) He put coffee on, and stood under the kitchen light, thinking of people going down in the South China Sea. He would drink the coffee and lose himself in the sports page.
On the dining room table was a collage Gina had put together made of articles that had appeared over the years, a picture history of the Shakespeare Theater of Memphis from the years on Monroe Street through the move to the converted Cotton Exchange warehouse, where it presently was. And she had laced in snippets of the magazine bios of the two women, “Cosmetics Tycoons” (as members of the company now called them), who had given all the money for renovating the place. Thaddeus sat drinking the coffee and looking at the jigsaw fragments of photos in their artful patchwork. He and Gina had met at City Stage on Monroe, in its fourth year. He was the young assistant theater manager and she was a staff member in set design. She was three years older, and sometimes teased him about that. (Lately, because she had turned forty—she was forty-one now—the teasing had gone the other way: Thaddeus would ask if she remembered when she was his age.) She had kept her last name: Donato. They were Deerforth and Donato.
She came downstairs as he was making more coffee. She had put on jeans, and a muslin top he liked, and tied her straw-colored hair back in a ponytail. She took a cup down from the cabinet and held it out for him to pour.
“Sorry I woke you,” he said.
“You didn’t wake me, dear.”
They sat across from each other at the table. She looked at the collage. “Can’t decide if I like this.”
“I’m gonna hang it in my office.”
She smiled, shaking her head, running her hand softly over a picture of the present theater with its old art deco façade, part of which had already been taken down. Members of the company had been dispersing for the summer. Gina would substitute teach art classes for a special summer program at Shelby County elementary schools. Their friend Claudette, the company’s best actor, had taken a job as a receptionist at the Williams Gallery on Main Street (though she had also scored a couple of local commercials). And the theater’s long-standing artistic director, Miles Warden, had decided to take a year’s leave of absence—which meant he would miss the fall season and the gala opening production. But he had already directed Lear, and even played him once. (“At thirty-eight,” he had told Thaddeus. “In five pounds of makeup.”) He was back in Sydney, where he was raised, to write a book about the man who raised him—his paternal grandfather. The old man had survived the Bataan Death March and went on to become a long-distance runner in the Olympics. The board had selected Reuben H. Frye, chair of the drama department at Holliwell Academy in Boston, to replace him for the fall. The board chairman’s wife had known Frye since he was her student at Harvard, where she taught literature for a few years. She had kept in touch with him. According to her, he was “preternaturally gifted” and had directed both on and off Broadway.
“Of course,” Deerforth had said at the time, “an awful lot of things in Jocelyn Grausbeck’s world are preternatural.”
The board chairman’s wife used the word a lot.
“So,” Gina had said. “The distinguished Reuben H. Frye’s been preternaturally on and off Broadway.”
“Mostly far off,” Deerforth answered, nodding with fake gravity. “Beijing.” And she laughed in that high, cackling way he loved.
The professor from Holliwell had become an aggravation.
And this was his day of arrival. He had already been pestering Deerforth on the phone and in emails about matters that couldn’t be dealt with in any case for weeks.
“Can I fry you a couple eggs?” he asked Gina now.
“Think I’ll just have this.” She held the cup to her lips. Then she indicated the paper. “There should be an article in there about the Cosmetics Tycoons. Claudette said she got interviewed, too.”
He paged through and found it under the heading “Memphis Girls.”
“Why didn’t they talk to you? You’re the theater manager.”
“It’s ‘Memphis Girls,’ babe. Claudette’s a Memphis girl, too. And anyway, I haven’t even met the Cosmetics Tycoons. It’s all been Arthur Grausbeck and the board.”
“Well, they should talk to you. You can help them fill up with dread.”
A moment later, he said, “You know, they’re gonna ask Malcolm Ruark to join the company.”
“The guy WMC fired for DUI and God only knows what with his niece? Why him?”
Thaddeus lifted one shoulder, a half shrug. “Well, apparently he was an actor with the company before. Celebrity sells? I don’t know. Frye wants him.”
She dipped her chin and did the TV anchor’s sign-off line: “ ‘That’s today’s story, so long and have a pleasant evening.’ ”
Thaddeus smiled. “You know he’s Gregory’s younger half brother.”
“I think I missed the connection.” Her tone might have been mock wonder. He couldn’t tell. Her eyes showed him friendly chiding. Then she frowned, considering. “But they’re not even in touch, are they?”
“I’ve never heard Gregory mention him. Have you?”
“But Gregory’s never mentioned a lot of things. Like the fact that he’s the ex-husband of one of the Cosmetics Tycoons.”
“You’re kidding. Is that why they—”
He shook his head. “I shouldn’t’ve said anything about that. It’s—not general knowledge. Yet. And anyway the two ladies are a happy couple. I mean it’s ancient history. They were in their twenties. Gregory’s as surprised as everybody else about the, um, largesse.”
He skimmed through the article while she sipped the coffee. Presently, he said, “Vietnam was in the news this morning. Boat sank in the South China Sea. First thing I saw.”
She said, “I don’t like the phrase ‘going dark’ about a theater.”
“Did you hear me about the boat sinking?”
“Christ, can we not dwell on that, please? Mother?”
Presently, he said, “I’ve got the whole morning with contractors about permits and the new wiring. And Frye’s arrival.”
“Take my car in. Remember, yours needs inspection. I’ll get it this morning.”
“I’d do it,” he said. “But.” He held his hands out slightly from his sides.
“I said I’d do it and I’ll do it on my way to teach my first class in twelve years.”
“After this morning with you and the terrors of the world. Yes. Craven.”
Her car was always so neat. She had hung a little glass pendant from the rearview mirror that caught sunlight through the windshield. It always caused a reminding flicker of exasperation whenever he saw it because he thought of it as a danger: he worried that it might reflect the light in a way that would blind her at a crucial moment in traffic.
When he left for the theater, there was a fetid breeze coming in off the river, and rain was in the forecast.
The Cosmetics Tycoons were life partners and founders of Berrens & Bland Cosmetics, Inc. And after almost three decades traveling and being wealthy and industrious in the world, they had sold everything lock, stock, and barrel for shiploads of money (their words), and returned to Tennessee determined to create a true showplace in the Mid-South for the one thing they were most passionate about: classical theater, particularly, of course, Shakespeare. Right there in the Mid-South by the river (they were Memphis girls, after all), they would create a theater rivaling places like the Pantages in LA, or Lincoln Center in New York.
Along with funding the renovation and the future, they had given a blank check to the board, for all decisions regarding productions. This allowed them to give Reuben H. Frye a free hand for scheduling, and also for hiring from outside the company. Frye had already scheduled a longer run than usual for Lear, which meant there would be only two other events for the season: Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women and a Christmas choral pageant that Frye would also direct, involving the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the University of Memphis Chorale. Moreover, he had hired a former Holliwell student, a young woman named Kelly Gordon, to direct the Albee. The Creative Committee, made up of Memphis-based actors and directors, hadn’t even been consulted.
But this apparent slight was eased by the fact that he had managed to land William Mundy for the role of Lear. Mundy, lead character in the Netflix smash hit Home Away, had been a reputable stage actor for a long time in England, but his celebrity was the result of six seasons as the irascible kindly grandfather in a Yorkshire family sheltering children coming from London during the blitzkrieg. The run for King Lear would be from Tuesday, August 4, to Saturday, October 24. More than seventy performances.
The theater board had been pleased that Frye was concerning himself with the fall season while continuing with his duties at Holliwell; but his offhandedness with members of the company had been the cause of some grumbling. He had requested portfolios from everyone, financial records from previous productions going back five years, and summaries of past strategies regarding promotions. He asked Gina and her staff for ideas and sketches regarding set design for the fall productions, and then rejected them all out of hand, the last with a thud of a joke (“You are the theater manager’s wife, so you’re all right no matter what, am I right?”), plus he had besieged Thaddeus himself with innuendos and complaints about the people in development and finance, community outreach and programming.
Perhaps the crowning thing was the postcard sent from New York in the first week of April, a picture of the newly opened Freedom Tower at night, on the back of which was Frye’s thin, slanting script, expressing the hope that things were going well, and mentioning his recent visit in New York with his great friend Al Pacino. He went on to say he planned to rejuvenate the dramatic arts in Memphis, and then, in nearly unreadable miniature, designated the brand of tea he would like served in the mornings after he took up residence.
Calls from the theater board had missed the former TV newsman for almost two weeks. He kept erasing them, believing it was someone trying to sell him something—a robocall, since the number wasn’t recognizable as being that of anyone he knew. Finally, he listened to a message. “Hello, this is Jocelyn Grausbeck of the new Globe Shakespeare Theater. Please call us at your earliest convenience.”
He thought it was a fundraising call and deleted it. Later, he received still another, and he picked it up, intending to say he was sorry, but it must be clear that he was not going to be a source for any kind of donation; but the voice this time was a man’s voice. “Bub-bub—uh, please don’t hang up, sir. This is Arthur Grausbeck, chairman of the board for the new Globe Shakespeare Theater of Memphis.”
“I don’t have any spare money, okay, Arthur? I can’t help you. Quit calling me.”
“This isn’t a fundraising call, sir. Please don’t hang up. I—bub-bub-bub—I’m calling to offer you a place in our company. Reuben H. Frye, our distinguished visiting artistic director, specifically asked for you. He wants you for Lear in the fall.”
“He wants me to play Lear?”
“He wants you for the play. And the theater board wants you for our regular company. We’re offering you a job, sir.”
“Do you know my recent history?”
Copyright © 2023 by Richard Bausch. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.