Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Night with Nicol Williamson

Nicol Williamson
He strode onstage, ranting, fuming, and wounded. A tall, lanky man, as quick and fierce as a tiger, flashing frustration, dominating the stage with his grace and deep bass voice that seemed to emanate from the center of the earth. I was in my mid twenties, a failed marriage behind me, dysfunctional family who were only too eager to be rid of me, and somehow supporting myself as a fashion model, a person without the faintest notion of who I was, where I was going, happy to be able to pay the rent and escape the bickering family.

I went to the theater by myself, looking for something, some clues, some sense of what life was, some direction, and so many models wanted to be actresses, I thought I'd see what that was all about. Many reasons brought me to that night, where sleeping beauty woke up. I have never regretted it for a nanosecond. I fell in love with the theater that night. The play was Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya', at the Circle in the Square theater, with a spectacular cast, Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Lillian Gish, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson and directed by Mike Nicols.

Vanya, commenting on his visitor, a professor: "For twenty-five years he has been chewing on other men's thoughts about realism, naturalism, and all such foolishness; for twenty-five years he has been reading and writing things that clever men have long known and stupid ones are not interested in; for twenty-five years he has been making his imaginary mountains out of molehills. And just think of the man's self-conceit and presumption all this time!"

Some old Russian guy was talking my language, my college frustrations, my life frustrations, my frustration with professors who talked a great game, but had never had to set foot in the real world. Internally, I stood up and cheered. Some weird, classical, Russian guy, who called his plays comedies, was voicing exactly my petulant frustrations, my sense of injustice and ill use, my inability to grasp life and make it my own.

But it got better and better. The big professor Nobody from Moscow is worshiped by Vanya's mother, to the great indignation of Vanya. This was exactly like my father's mother, who never failed to point out to my research scientist father that he did not have his doctorate, that he was not a professor. Her vanity was not satisfied. Worse, much like Vanya, my father felt his work running the research lab at Columbia supported those dithering, idiot professors, who looked down on him. I, myself, was recently out of college, and was quite disillusioned to find that college had not in any meaningful way prepared me for 'real life.' Real life was horribly unjust and very confusing.

But the best was yet to come. Steeped in frustration, furious at losing 'the girl' who he accused of wasting her young vitality on the old mackerel professor rather than experiencing life, Vanya gets out a gun and threatens to shoot the professor during a dinner party. My soul, my spirit, my entire being, sat up and came alive. At that moment, I lost my virginity as a human being to Nicol and theater. Someone understood Bad Thanksgivings. Not that my father had ever gotten out a gun or threatened to shoot anybody, but family gatherings always ended explosively, just like these crazy Russians.

This was an epiphany for me; I experienced a transcendental moment of unity with all mankind. I was not alone in my misery; others, too, had horrible frustrations, crushing disappointments and explosively awful family gatherings. My whole person breathed a sigh such as I had never felt before. I was excited, thrilled beyond anything. There was hope. Like Vanya, I wanted the courage to take hold and experience life's vitality, and here was a road map for my feelings, here was the disaster I was heading for, here were the rationalizations that had sunk Vanya and threatened to sink me. But, understanding them began to free me, gave me something to aim for. If I could understand my demons, I could vanquish them. I hung on every word of that play, breathlessly. I recognized my life up there on the stage. Oh, thank you Chekhov! You genius! Thank you Russian theater! Thank you Stanislavsky for making acting lifelike!

And thank you passionately alive and electrically exciting Nicol for being a truly gifted actor, for caring enough about life and your fellow man to tread the often thankless and unremunerative stage, struggling to waken hearts and minds. I will never forget you.

Theater would help me to live and free myself from my squirrel cage, going round and round and getting nowhere. It opened up a whole other side of my brain, and connected my spirit to my intellect, like a ballet dancer getting her legs under her and executing a perfect jete, I was launched into life, through the understanding that 'Uncle Vanya' had given me.

Thanksgiving now would not be torture, anguish and bad digestion, it would be an event to watch closely and enjoy as theater of the mind and character.

I will never forget that night. I have never forgotten any live theater performance. There is just something about live theater that becomes part of your soul, if it's halfway decently done.

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