Emily Webb at 60 // by Barbara Andres
Veteran actress Barbara Andres and the challenge of playing Emily Webb late in her career.
Giving birth is an unforgettable experience. However many millions of times the miracle takes place, each individual occurrence has its own fingerprint, its own history. This Sunday is Mother’s Day and since I had four children of my own many moons ago, I can’t help but remember those life-altering events every year. I can also never forget the birthing of Transport Group. Nearly twenty years ago, I helped deliver this great company.
I met Jack Cummings III, when his wife, Barbara Walsh, and I were working together at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1997. While visiting Barbara for the weekend, he came to me one day with a crazy idea. “I’ve always wanted to cast an older couple to play Emily and George in Our Town. Would you play Emily?” Happy as I was to be offered an intriguing job, I couldn’t help but think the idea absurd. After all, I was 60 years-old. Even at 18, I never saw myself as an Emily. I had passed right over ingenue and landed straight on leading lady. I laughed, thanked him, and thought that was that.
Two months later, Jack called and asked me again to play Emily. He mentioned Tom Ligon (also 60) would play George, and a 12-year-old girl named Emma Orelove would play The Stage Manager. All the other roles would be played by actors in their 20s and 30s. I agreed and we did a successful holiday benefit reading for The Lark Theatre Company. From there, Jack and his collaborator Robyn Hussa (who played Mrs. Webb) decided to form Transport Group. Our Town would serve as their inaugural production.
I have often been asked how it felt to be 60 playing 18. During rehearsal, I came to an epiphany that somehow, I suspect Jack always knew. He just trusted me to find it on my own. With six decades of life under my belt, I had the advantage of already knowing most of Emily’s thoughts, words, and relationships. Even in her remembering, I could walk through it all, reawakening in my own heart my present tense reality at the same time. While living Emily’s life, I didn’t have to wait for the famous third act to get it all because from The Stage Manager’s first words, I understood. My very age brought a resonance to the simplest, most profound thoughts.
There is a long stretch in Act I when Emily silently observes her family’s life all around her and feels for the first time her heart-stopping love for George. At one point before bed, her father calls up to her, “Any troubles on your mind, Emily?” The answer from a dreamy teen, “Troubles, Papa? No.” Three small words. As an actor, we try to dig deeply to understand the inner music of the writer. As a young woman, it’s perfectly fine to just give that truthful answer as written. But I saw so much more. Somehow, I knew the depth Mr. Wilder wanted. Even if only one person understood, I hoped the audience was ready to receive what I felt inside those words. I held the aching unspeakable secret that the imperfect troubled life was surely ahead, even while I had to cover it with just the pure joy of sharing the moon. I would not have gone there at 18—but at 60, I did.
As we approached the third act, I kept searching to bring some of my own truth to Emily’s difficult journey from the living world to the dead. Before Emily herself arrives to the funeral, Mrs. Gibbs reveals how she died, birthing her second child.
Emily finally enters and I discovered several hints in Mr. Wilder’s script that would help me navigate her perilous journey, noting her growing physical pain throughout her dialogue:
(Pained—sitting forward) “When does this feeling go away? Of being one of them?”
(Sitting up abruptly, her L. hand hugging her waist, both fists clenched) “But Mother Gibbs, one can go back; one can go back there again—into living! I feel it! I know it! Why just then for a moment I was thinking about—about the farm—and for a minute I was there (Looking at her lap a moment) and my baby was on my lap as plain as day!”
“But I won’t live over a sad day. I’ll choose a happy one—I’ll choose the day I first knew I loved George!” (Leans forward as in pain, pressing L. arm to side) “Oh no, no! Why should that be painful?” (still leaning forward)
What did all this mean? If Emily is still experiencing pain, is she not dead yet? I immediately remembered delivering my own four children—the labor pains that rose and fell in intensity—and saw a similar building of pain in Mr. Wilder’s lines. If Emily was living through her own passage of dying again, would that give me permission to revisit the earth for a last moment in time? Is this how I could earn her final chance to say goodbye? I decided to approach these lines by reliving Emily’s labor pains, using a vocal build. I knew clearly the regeneration of life was the ultimate end. I, as Emily, somehow had to return to earth, ageless now, and finish my story.
And so, I labored, I rejoiced, I loved, and apart from all those troubles…I accepted my new world, realizing finally the heartbreaking truth:
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
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