This week, I am reflecting on the word, “wait” as a part of the online faith formation for St. Thomas. As I sit with this word, my mind drifts back to one particular time and place.
I was a sophomore in college that year, starting to build my sense of self and moving through the world with intention. In retrospect, a lot was happening in my life that was preparing me to propel into my next chapters. At the time of the audition, though, I was just a college sophomore hoping to be in a play.
The play I auditioned for was Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I had been in plays and musicals in high school, but this time it felt different. I read lines in soliloquy and was asked to read dialogue with several others. It was several days between auditions and the posting of parts. I honestly didn’t expect a role after my first audition. But there I was, on the character list: Mrs. Gibbs.
What I didn’t realize at that time was that performing Our Town in the style Thornton Wilder intended involved much more than learning lines. It involved a slow and steady transformation into Mrs. Gibbs. When the play opens, I am cooking dinner in my kitchen. There are no props in Our Town, so I had to practice this scene creating that kitchen in my mind with such certainty and accuracy that the audience could smell the eggs I was frying. In fact, living into Mrs. Gibbs took time and energy beyond anything I could have imagined. Without props, actions and dialogue are the only way to allow the character to emerge into life.
With time, and much rehearsing, I was able to deeply know Mrs. Gibbs. I knew what she would do, how she would hold her head, what she hoped and what she feared. I learned to love her, to embrace her strengths and flaws. Through the first two acts, we learned to live and move as one.
Then, we came to Act Three.
In Act III, the deceased residents of Grover’s Corners sit in simple folding chairs, detached and passively watching the scene of Emily’s funeral unfold. Mrs. Gibbs is one of the deceased. The first time I played out this scene, I remember feeling this enormous, wet blanket of emotion overwhelming me. Like the characters play out in the script, there is so much attachment to life that it can be palpably felt. Eventually, though, while I waited there with Mrs. Gibbs, the heavy attachment lifted. I began to feel free and light. Not sad. Not morose. Simply present, adrift in memory and lives actively lived.
The last night of our performance, I felt myself suddenly emotional. I realized that I had been waiting with Mrs. Gibbs in her life and in her death. I had lived into her character, and in doing so, I had learned something new about myself. In my waiting, I had touched a piece of something…something more real than living, something untouched by dying.
As the play closes, the Stage Manager speaks the words that I had come to know, to embrace, to embody. I had waited with Mrs. Gibbs, and I was granted a glimpse of the eternal:
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
That lesson was worth every moment of the wait. “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Thank you, Mrs. Gibbs, for teaching me. For patiently waiting with me. For giving me a glimpse of the eternal that I cannot forget.