PORCHES, a musical drama I’d co=written with Tom Sweitzer, was set in Altoona in 1944.
Tom came up with the original storyline - the idea of an older woman named Violet who manages to secretly help her neighbors. And the deeper theme is that of keeping the memory of loved ones alive in our hearts in ways that help us appreciate life.
Tom wrote the music in memory of his mother, and I wrote the book (the script) in memory of my father.
What happened when this was first performed in Middleburg, Virgina astounded both of us. Seeing the powerful emotional reaction of audiences, Tom and I realized PORCHES had become "greater than the sum of its parts" - an entity with more purpose than either of us intended. People who were in the grieving process for loved ones kept coming up to us and saying, "This play should be used in grief therapy."
It sounds kind of like bragging to talk this way about a play, but, as a playwright or a writer, you know there are times you feel like you didn't have anything to do with the writing at all. Well, that's the way this play felt to me when writing it - and it always has.
It came to Tom's home town and the grand Mishler Theatre in September of 2005. Since I'd helped create the costumes alongside my mother (the lead actress), I was prepared to work back stage during performances, so on Tech night, my friend Joni Crane and I were waiting for the cast to show up for what was gping to be one of the most incredible theatre experiences of our lives. The Mishler, is a 1907 Beaux Arts theatre with 904 seats.
The very next evening we would see the theatre filled to the brim with an audience who’d actually lived the play they were about to see.
The story had come home.
Joni and I were there at the theatre early to carry mounds of costumes through the back stage area down into the dressing rooms below the stage.
But now it was time to head out to the car to gather in those costumes. I’d written the script for PORCHES based on Tom Sweitzer’s story and original draft, and then volunteered as Publicity Chair and Costumer (in local theatre, you’d better learn to juggle more than one chainsaw, ‘cause they’ll be coming at you anyway). Joni and I were cutting up as usual; I was giddy with the thought of my friend coming all the way from Colorado to help us that weekend. She would assist with the taping of the full dress rehearsal the next afternoon, and then she’d come backstage. We got our first great armfuls of 1944 costuming and headed indoors; I remember laughing over something and turning my head to smile at Joni.
Next thing I knew I was down on the asphalt; the costumes had graciously lumped themselves in a fairly organized pile beside me.
And I looked down at my shoe.
With a quick fold, my ankle fit into a pothole perfectly. I knew it was a sprain, because I’d done this before while running from fourth base to home in a college softball game (The bat lay smack in the middle of home plate, and I’d stepped on it and rolled my ankle as if it were exactly what I’d meant to do).
Now I groaned and told Joni me what I’d done. Three days ahead of us — three days of press related activity, costume running, cleaning, ironing, rehearsals and galas. And I’d sprained my ankle. No. This thing wasn’t going to beat me. The only thing to do was do this thing right. We’d wait for the rest of the cast, and then head for the hospital.
Tom, Sr., (Tom Sweitzer’s dad) fetched ice, and the Set Designer, John Rita and his wife, Cindy, set me up with an ice pack. Joni and other helpers brought in the rest of the costumes. I hobbled into the orchestra seats and sat down, propping my pitiful leg on the burgundy velvet arm of the seat in front of me.
But I kept pausing and looking around me. I was there. Our musical was at The Mishler Theatre. We were really there. By the way, this is the theatre made famous by the George Burn’s quote, “Well, they loved me in Altoona.”
Newly renovated by Architect John Rita’s restoration firm, interior has been returned to its former turn-of-the century glory with mottled forest green walls, gilt trim and elaborate angelic friezes gracing double balconies, a wide stage and an 80 foot-high proscenium arch.
But on the stage stood the most incredible sight of all: our set for PORCHES. It was a life-size version of the four homes, four porches, sitting side by side with their angles slightly askew. The actors would no longer have to pretend a neighborhood lived next door. Here it was - wash buckets, rusty gliders, dying geraniums and all. The set and the glory of the auditorium around it literally stung the eyes with their beauty.
With ankle aching, and the cast bus due to arrive any moment, I took a deep breath, and sat back to enjoy the show. Little choice to do otherwise.
And then the actors began to trickle in. They chattered with each other until the moment they passed into the theatre. Then all conversation would halt and several would gasp. I watched them wipe tears from their eyes, which caused me to wipe tears from mine.
And have I mentioned the statues in the alcoves, the twelve foot-wide crystal chandeliers, and the circle of angels looking down from the high domed ceiling? I swear those angels were smiling just for us, and I thanked them.
The show was as phenomenal as we knew it could be. I felt bad that I couldn't be backstage helping, but I have to admit I didn't mind being forced to enjoy every moment from one of those lush theatre seats.