Small Towns, Big Questions // by Michele Pawk

Actor Michele Pawk finds reflections of her rural upbringing in the quiet existentialism of William Inge.

I grew up in a small town about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh, PA.  How small was it?  Well, my high school consisted of one building, which housed grades 7 through 12.  Because no boys attended school on the first day of deer hunting season, eventually that day became a holiday.  Our post office was located on Main St., and to get there you crossed the one-lane bridge and railroad tracks.  Next to it was a beauty parlor.  That was it.
Like most folks coming from rural communities, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with mine.  I loved the fact that “everybody knew my name,” but hated that everybody therefore knew my business.  I loved getting lost in the woods and playing by the “crick,” but hated to be so far from culture and civilization.  Pittsburgh was only 40 minutes away, but as a kid, it might as well have meant time travel!  I desperately wanted to get out of there.  I knew I was destined for so much more than marriage, kids, and endless town gossip.
Once I decided to become a “serious actress,” I transferred to a fancier college and spent that summer educating myself on some of the great American plays/playwrights.  I began with my local library offerings: Tea and SympathyThe Four PosterDesire Under the Elms, and of course, all Tennessee Williams all the time.  Then I stumbled upon William Inge.  The first play of his I read was A Loss of Roses.  I know now that this was not considered his masterpiece, but I got lost in his world!  I knew those people.  I felt their frustrations and yearned for the same dreams.  Years later, I would be lucky enough to embark on a deep and personal exploration of his masterworks The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Picnic with director Jack Cummings and Transport Group.
To be in the room with Jack and the always extraordinary group of collaborators he could convince to work for cab fare, has proven to be among the treasured experiences in my life.  To sit around a table for weeks and continue to ask “why” must be torture for some actors.  But I was in heaven!  During one deep dive into Picnic, we pondered Flo’s question, “Why are some women humiliated to love a man?”  Humiliated?  What did Inge mean by that?  We looked it up: “to make someone feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect, especially publicly.”  The room was abuzz with questions that led to more questions, and folks sharing some very personal stories…bonding.
As the debate continued, I levitated above the table—my head was swirling with memories from my own small town.  My mother being trapped by life; pregnant at nineteen and in love with a man who did not live up to her dreams—later feeling shame from the small-town gaze for somehow having “failed” at marriage (a feeling I later owned, even though I was then far from the small town).  She instilled in her four children the intense bond of family but reminded the girls “to never need a man.”  To be self-reliant.  She just wanted what every parent wants for their children…for it to be easier.  Just as Flo begs Madge to make a different choice at the end of Picnic.
In between the two Transport Group Inge productions in which I was involved, I was lucky enough to spend some time working in Independence, Kansas where Inge was raised and many of his plays are based.  I immediately recognized a few of the literal landmarks he wrote about: the staircase Cora ascends at the end of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs; the bridge under which Madge and Hal “park” in Picnic; the neighboring porches abutting to connect one another like family; the park where the annual Neewollah Festival is held and where Madge “misses” the picnic.  But I also made a few discoveries of my own.
I was overwhelmed by the sense of community and generosity.  People not only opened their homes to me, I actually lived with an incredible woman for two months.  Others shared their stories, prepared meals—even lent me their bicycle!  I grew to love the people “peering through the shutters” as I rode by.  I still cherish the camaraderie established with folks at the local bar, The Wagon Wheel, which has since tragically burned down.  And until now, I have kept the secret of what’s hidden in the backroom of the local women’s clothing store.  Upon entering and asking to see “Steve,” an excited clerk ushered me into a room full of some of the naughtiest sex toys I had ever seen (and I lived in New York City).  All of our small towns have their delicious secrets!
The love/hate relationship I once had with my small town has morphed over the years.  Maybe it’s age and a natural yearning for simplicity, but my appreciation for where I come from has recently deepened.  I find myself craving some of the very things Inge celebrates in his plays: community, kindness, lazy days.  As my husband and I approach whatever the “next chapter” is, I don’t doubt we will find ourselves in a version of small town, USA.

About the author:

Michele Pawk is a Tony & OBIE Award winning and 4x Drama Desk Award nominated actor.  Broadway credits include Hollywood Arms (Tony Award), BeautifulHairsprayLosing Louie, Mamma Mia, Chicago, Seussical, Cabaret (Drama Desk & Outer Critics’ Circle Award nominations), Triumph Of Love, Crazy For You (Drama Desk nomination), and Mail.  Other NYC credits include The Heroes of the 4th Turning, Giant, Mahida’s Extra Key To Heaven, Flyovers, Prayer For My EnemyThe Dark At The Top Of The StairsPicnic, The Paris Letter (Drama Desk nomination), Reefer Madness, After The Fair, Hello Again, Merrily We Roll Along, Jon & Jen, and A Little Night Music.  Directing credits include My Queer Youth and The Disney Diaries at The Beechman Theatre, West Side Story at Creighton University In Omaha, NE (nominated for Best Direction, Best Musical Awards), Carapace Isle at Manhattan Rep,  Seussical, Merrily We Roll Along, Rent, and Little Shop of Horrors for Wagner College, and Picnic for The William Inge Center For The Arts.  Michele is a professor of performing arts at Wagner College.