Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brave Clothes

Mary Katherine recently told me about a great theater kid prank -- run  into a store, frantic, and ask the clerk, "What year is this?"  When they respond, scream -- "It worked!" and run out of the store, ecstatic.

I felt a little bit like that last night, like I'd gone back in time in an especially effective experiment. We went to see "Nice Work" at the Imperial Theater. Earth-changing, evocative drama? Hardly. But it was an absolute trip back to 1927 and the world of Mrs. Gershwin's little boys, George and Ira, and that can never be a bad thing in my book.  

Mary and I got to the theater crazy-early, partly to allow plenty of time for me to get off at the wrong subway stop (surprise, I didn't) and partly to give us a chance to breathe in the atmosphere. We walked around all the neighboring theaters, and saw an actor sitting on the fire escape of the Jacob, playing the ukelele and smoking a pipe before his half-hour call at "Once."  We admired the bourbon bottle on the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" posters.

We went inside and swanned our way up to the ladies' room, with Mary Katherine stopping on her way to photograph big stack of Playbills. The audience came in two flavors -- people who remembered little Georgie when he still wore short pants, and people who took the first thing they saw at TKTS that wasn't  "Death of a Salesman." There were several walker-users in evidence, but there were also more than a few backwards baseball caps, which angered Mary Katherine.  This, after all, is church.

We got to our seats before the entrance of The Lady in Blue, but for all I know she'd been walking down the aisle to her spot in Row H since 6 p.m. -- she did not, as they say during Marathon commentaries, make good time. Here was geometry in motion; a human 90-degree angle who was bent just about as far an ancient spine would allow. On the plus side, I thought, she probably spots a lot of loose change on the sidewalk. She was with a younger (well, under age 60) woman, upon whom she was leaning, with further assistance of a gnarled black cane. Behind her was an elderly gentleman with a weary, husbandly air. He wore a jacket and tie. But her, she was truly rocking that theater-going look. Below her wispy grey hair and above her orthopedic shoes, there was a glittery blue blouse, all sequins and sass.

I got a good look at her finery while she lowered herself into her seat in front of me, because it took her several minutes to begin that slow, creaky descent. Her bony shoulders shot out from either side like additional geometry lessons, little pop quizzes on what happens when everything but your spirit shrivels up. She turned to say something to her husband, and I caught a noble profile, deep set blue eyes and all the indications of a bright and lively person hiding in there somewhere.

I wondered how old she had been the first time she'd heard a Gershwin song. I wondered if she'd appeared in a Gershwin show. Someone with that much snap might well have been a chorus girl.

I imagined how long it had taken her to get ready for the theater that evening. Given the pace at which she'd made it to her seat, I guessed that she'd gone to her closet about noon. And she'd said to herself, "Yes, I am an old woman. And yes, I walk at the angle of an Isosceles triangle, and as quickly as a very old tortoise. But, dammit, I am putting on my special blue sparkly shirt tonight, and I'm going to hold my husband's hand when Kelli O'Hara sings 'Someone to Watch Over Me,' and that's just all there is to that." I imagine that she might have thrown in another "dammit" for good measure.

Before last night, I had only thought of clothes as comfortable or itchy, in style or out of it. But sitting two rows behind that woman, I saw that clothes could also be brave. And as I applauded the actors at the finale, I applauded her, too. Brava, Lady in Blue. Godspeed.

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