Monday, August 29, 2011

Mrs. Winemiller and Her Last Close-Up

This is a minimally edited version of a comment posted by a reader (a former student) to my last posting “Prop Actor” July 22.
I am working on Mrs. Winemiller from "Summer and Smoke". In the most literal sense, many scenes in the play involve props that evoke something much more than their most basic taste, smell, sight, sound - an ice cream, a beautiful hat. Her youth was made up of soft, draping fabrics and ice cream socials, brushed kid gloves and feathered and flowered hats. On some level, attainment of some echo of these things is all she has to look forward to - on another level I see them as symbolic of the small battles she wages every day to maintain a place and maybe control of her family. I am working with material things that made/make me happy - luscious bright scarves, lipstick (no, my lips are not naturally orange), a beautiful hibiscus bloom, etc. And I'm really trying to find the kinesthetic connection to my spine and hers. Because they bring her joy on several levels and take her back to a time in her life that was not bewildering and upsetting and lonely. Getting/winning these things brings back the spine that served her so well in her youth. I am a visual and tactile person. In this case I find it especially helpful, but no matter the case I hope always to be a prop actress too.

Now, I would appreciate your help. I don't see Mrs. Winemiller as "a crazy person". It's too pat for her to be nothing other than a mean old selfish crazy lady. Obviously she is not normal. But she is not "insane" in the stereotypical sense. She is intelligent and selectively lucid when needed. She was a beautiful, young belle once who was loved, pampered and spoiled to the extent that she became a pampered, spoiled adult with no life skills thrust into a life of responsibility. While she retreats into a childish state, it doesn't mean she doesn't love and want to be loved. In my opinion she spends much of the play trying to gain attention/love and to keep her family tied to her. Because what would happen to her if she were left completely alone? So she uses the weapons she has to thwart Alma's struggles to find her own love and demand her husband's attention. I don't believe she understands the real damage she is doing to her daughter. Her mind operates at a smaller level.

I am somewhat stuck on her final scene in the play, Part II, Scene 3. By this point you could say that she has triumphed. Alma's relationship with John Buchanan is not to be and further, Alma no longer occupies Rev. Winemiller's enforced pedestal - the one Mrs. Winemiller used to occupy. She and her father no longer share the "comradeship" they once did. She has re-established/cemented her place in the family circle and drawn that circle tighter around her. As the scene closes, I believe Mrs. Winemiller gets a glimpse of the real depth of her daughter's pain. If there is ever a time that brings back echoes Mrs. Winemiller's life with her beautiful baby girl (and all the sensory images that evokes), this would seem to be it. Those last two lines seem to hold out an opportunity - but I'm having trouble figuring out exactly what the opportunity is. . . I'm exploring several things - but it's not right. What do you think?

Your thinking about Mrs. Winemiller, it seems to me, is clear and sound.
There is a young woman in you who can imaginatively become Mrs. Winemiller.
In your own life, when she/you suffered a devastating experience, she didn’t escape into “a breakdown” as Mrs. Winemiller did. Why? She/you had something Mrs. Winemiller doesn’t have--as you say, “life skills.” 
To create/become Mrs. Winemiller, then, eliminate your own capacity for life skills and animate the young girl in you who could have become a young Mrs. Winemiller.

So, yes, choose some “props” that will help bring back to life that happy, carefree, even pampered, young girl: Select a bright scarf to lift up the spine and let it soar a little and to free the hands and fingertips from practical concerns. Apply the perfect lipstick to put the finishing touch on a young girl who might then just do a 360 degree spin in front of the mirror. Or if that’s getting a little too grown-up, maybe look in the mirror and open your bright eyes very wide and give a great big lip-sticked smile.
Then simply apply these responses to the significant stimuli in Mrs. Winemiller’s life: Choose a chocolate/strawberry ice cream at an ice cream social where you are the featured attraction. Put on a plumed hat that allows you to release and display feminine energies in bouncing, airy plumes.
No need, I think, to get post-adolescent; rather, early energetic pubescent (“Alma’s got a boyfriend! Alma’s got a boyfriend!”)

As you say, she wants love and attention. (Alma comes into the room and Mr. Winemiller immediately turns to her. No matter that it may be to scold her. Do something to get him to turn back to you. "I want ice cream!") She wants to keep her family tied to her. (Do something that will make them keep you close: Take that hat when no one’s looking.)
As Williams suggests, she evaded the responsibilities of later life by slipping into a state of perverse childishness.
As you say, she is not insane, not just a mean old selfish crazy lady. Rather, a woman without life skills. If there is malice, it is the malice of the suddenly-neglected child who fights to win back daddy’s attention from the new sibling who has become the center of attention. (“Look at me! Look at me!”)
And all, naturally, in the manner of a girl of a certain social class at a certain cultural time in the South.

As for the last scene in which Mrs. Winemiller appears, you’re right to want to tie up her thread in the story.
I believe you should make “actor choices” based on what the play needs. You test the fitness of those choices against what the play asks of you. And you create only what audience members will be able to add up moment to moment as they experience the production.
These are simple obvious ideas, but I think actors often have a hard time with them because actors have a hard time actually putting the whole play ahead of all the ideas they have about their individual characters. Actors often have a hard time putting their characters in their proper relationship to the needs of the whole play.

Start with the whole play and let it be your guide:
What is Summer and Smoke about? What is its theme? State it in as few words as possible. And as simple and action-oriented as possible.
Then: What does the playwright say about this theme? Make a simple declarative statement in actor’s terms; that is, in terms of action, of things you can do.
Then: It’s a play. It’s drama. That means a world of forces (social, religious, cultural, geographical, etc.) whose conflict dramatizes the theme and the playwright’s idea about the theme. It also means individual human beings, each the manifestation of one of these forces, and all in opposition to one another.
In this play, the two major forces in conflict (what are they specifically?) are manifested/anthropomorphized in Alma and John. They are the characters in the play with the most complex characters. (What does that actually mean in actor’s terms?) And they experience the greatest change from the beginning of the play to the end. (Why?)

Any good work of art accomplishes what it needs to accomplish in the simplest, clearest way possible. For example, a good play has as few characters as possible.
Why didn’t Williams give Alma only a widowed father to live with? Why does the play need Mrs. Winemiller?
Answer this question as directly and as simply as possible—and notice, the answer has the whole play, not Mrs. Winemiller, as its central focus. This answer will help you answer your question about what happens to Mrs. Winemiller during the last scene she’s in.
The director should give Mrs. Winemiller one final moment during which the audience's attention goes fully to her. You get one action, one response, perhaps one realization, to reveal what the Mrs. Winemiller thread has added up to.
Think of it as the stage equivalent of a film close-up where her leitmotif contribution to the major theme is clinched. Her contribution ends with this close-up, though what the whole play has been dramatizing about what it means to be human will need several more scenes to achieve.
So the question isn’t what is happening to Mrs. Winemiller in this last moment so much as it is what has the theme of the play needed Mrs. Winemiller to be and what has that come to in this last moment. What force underpinning the world of the play is Mrs. Winemiller the humanization of and where does it stand in this last scene? Why is it/she no longer needed in the play?
And by the way, given all that: At what precise moment in the scene should the Mrs. Winemiller close-up come? Why must it not be the last moment of the scene?
Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

[Later note: The writer and I share follow-up comments below.]