Soulmates Generations Apart // by Barbara Barrie
Actor Barbara Barrie’s young granddaughter finds a kinship in Barbara’s 72-year-old co-star.
[In 2014, Transport Group produced a revival of John Van Druten’s 1944 play I REMEMBER MAMA, based on Kathryn Forbes’ memoir detailing the life of an immigrant Norwegian family in San Francisco in the early part of the twentieth century. The play was cast non-traditionally with a group of ten veteran actresses in their 70s and 80s playing all of the roles: men, women, and children. Author Barbara Barrie, who was 82 at the time, played Katrin, the 16-year-old eldest daughter of the Hanson family.]
My middle grandchild, Mabel Jay Freifeld, dances and sings her way through life. She makes movies on her iPhone and performs on TikTok. She doesn’t walk—she flips and double flips (forward and backward). She cartwheels, skips, jazz-dances, jumps, and somersaults (backward and forward). She falls into perfect splits, from which she comes up in one motion and does a backward one-legged leap.
Her father, Adam Freifeld, says that in order to speak to her, you must drop to your knees, put your head slightly to the side, wave your hands and shout.
Mabel was six years old when we did I Remember Mama at Transport Group. She was tiny and wore huge owl-sized spectacles and weighed about a total of ten pounds from never, ever sitting still.
Phyllis Somerville was probably in her early seventies. She, too, was very delicate—not tall at all—with a mane of grey-blonde hair that she casually put up in a knot—or didn’t. She was utterly gorgeous, slim and elegant, very wry, and deeply independent. And a consummate, brilliant, original actress. She was playing Dagmar, the youngest child in the family.
I couldn’t believe she could really become that six-year-old child. Well, as a matter of fact—I couldn’t believe ANY of us—all over seventy at least—could become the many characters we were all asked to play.
But we did. And Phyllis dashed around, flew under tables, skipped, leaped over chairs while chirping, laughing, and pouting. She could run in one direction and then in a second—turn and run in the other direction and disappear somewhere behind a chair or in a corner. After two weeks of rehearsal—she was Dagmar.
So, Mabel Jay Freifeld came to see our show. She sat on a middle tier of the theatre—her face forward and shining, her mouth open in wonder, and never moved for the two and a half hours of that evening—except to wave to me at the curtain call.
When my family came backstage, Mabel instantly came up to me and said, with great intensity, “I HAVE TO MEET DAGMAR.” She was actually trembling with feeling. I went into the dressing room and asked Phyllis if she would come out and say hello.
Phyllis immediately came out into the little greeting area and looked into the face of this very small, lighted-up child. Without a word, Phyllis dropped to her knees so that her face was exactly opposite Mabel’s.
They clasped hands and whispered their conversation. Phyllis became “Dagmar” again, and Mabel was an enchanted girl talking to a cherished friend—both of them sitting on the floor, their heads so close together.
For the next years, Mabel often talked about “Dagmar.” And Phyllis always maintained that mystical understanding when occasionally they met. There was no doubt in Mabel’s mind that this person was really six years old—that maybe—well—yes—she may be an actress, but she was really her very special, very wonderful, very personal friend. And didn’t they both whoosh their way through life—flying through the air and dashing up and down, over and under things—through doors and in and out of rooms?
Phyllis Somerville died last year, and it was sudden and devastating. None of us will ever forget her nor her gift to my granddaughter. Mabel will certainly never forget. She still talks about “Dagmar,” and we all talk, with love, about Phyllis.
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