The Lives Behind the Death of Me // by Jack Cummings III
Jack Cummings III recounts directing two veteran actresses who made the best of their differences…begrudgingly.
A few years back, I was directing a death scene. You know, a scene in which a character…dies. In the midst of working on this death scene, it occurred to me that trying to direct it might actually be the death of—me.
It was 2014 and the production was I Remember Mama. The scene involved three stalwart actresses: Lynn Cohen, Phyllis Somerville, and Barbara Andres: Lynn played Uncle Chris—Phyllis played his wife—Barbara Andres played his niece. Uncle Chris is on his death bed and has called in his wife and favorite niece for one last toast before he dies. Unfortunately for me, the scene involved that dreaded of all things when you are short on rehearsal time: PROPS—three small glasses and one liquor bottle. Interspersed with the dialogue, Phyllis had to gather the aforementioned props, pour the liquor into each of the glasses and hand Lynn and Barbara their drinks, culminating in each of them raising their glasses and saying “Skoal!” (the characters are Norwegian). This was immediately followed by Uncle Chris dying. One might rightfully ask, “So, what was the big deal?” Come, I tell you.
I Remember Mama is an old chestnut of a play from the 1940s that tells the tender story of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Think The Waltons meets Little House on the Prairie, but sorta Norwegian’ish. I decided to do the play as originally written but cast it with all women. And not just any women but older women. And by older I mean the median age of the cast was 80, give or take a few years. The cast numbered ten. And let me tell you, there is nothing more daunting than facing ten veteran actresses who can each believably sing “I’m Still Here” from Follies.
While each of these ten ladies was different from the next, they did have a few key things in common. They knew who they were as people, as artists, and as actors. They knew their process inside and out—they knew what they wanted and what they needed at ALL times. All of these “traits” (quote marks intentional) came to a boiling head in this Uncle Chris death scene.
It started out fine more or less. Here are the glasses, here is the bottle, pour and toast—easy, right? But then Lynn mentioned that within her lines, she wanted to be handed her glass after a certain phrase and not before—and then, and then, I maybe blacked out because it was all downhill from there. The order of pouring the liquor for some reason became confusing—when each would drink became confusing—minds kept changing—the position of the glasses was now up for grabs—how much liquor should be poured in each glass became highly debatable—hand me the glass now—no, that’s not when I hand it to you—yes it is—when would you like me to hand it to you exactly—how about we go back to the top—no, let’s settle first when I pour the liquor…and on and on it went. I found myself in some cruel Abbott and Costello director nightmare. Lynn and Phyllis were relentless with each other—neither giving an inch. Barbara Andres and I stood by valiantly trying to help or fix or just plain…SURVIVE. You see, while I am sure Phyllis and Lynn respected each other’s talent, they more or less (emphasis on more) could not stand each other’s process. I can’t tell you exactly how their processes were different, but it was clear early on, they simply didn’t mesh. I wish I could tell you it ended happily with Lynn and Phyllis hugging each other and saying, “I’m sorry, I was just having a bad day.” But no. We did however eventually figure out the scene—and by figure out, I mean we reached a reluctant truce. The scene ended with the word “Skoal” and I have never been so happy to hear a word in my entire life.
Lynn and Phyllis are no longer with us. Lynn died in February and Phyllis died in July. I tell this story because I have been thinking about them a lot lately. And for some reason this death scene always pops into my head first. As frustrating as it clearly was, what it ultimately showed me went beyond my own director flailing.
These two women were physically tiny (think The Borrowers) but GIGANTIC when it came to being an artist. Lynn was 80 at the time and Phyllis was 70 and here they were off-Broadway committing to an unconventional production (to say the least) with all the tenacity of Serena Williams trying to win a record-breaking Wimbledon. They showed up, dove headfirst into the work, and never relented until they got it as perfect as they could. You see, Lynn and Phyllis were complete old school: they had only one goal and that was the work. Their acting was so deeply heartfelt that often they only had to cast a look and the audience would be teary-eyed. Their artistry was effortless yet layered, complex yet clear, surprising yet plausible. And even though their individual process drove each other’s individual process insane (I recall Phyllis giving Lynn a look once that would rival The Godfather), they never let that stop them from pursuing the truest way to give that story to the audience every night. I think what I mean to say is, they ultimately overlooked their differences and kept their eye on the collective story, which for them is all that mattered. Their age and experience gave them this wisdom. And at this particularly volatile moment we are all experiencing, I am trying hard every day to summon what they so instinctively knew.
Right before Uncle Chris’s death scene, he has one last moment with his teenage great niece Katrin. As Katrin leaves the room, she quietly says “Goodbye, Uncle Chris.” He stops her and asks her to say it in Norwegian. Katrin complies and says “Farvell, Onkel Chris.”
Farvell Lynn. Farvell Phyllis.