Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Four Years

There was no wonder I picked Hoboken as the place to relocate when I first saw it back in June 2007. The wide sidewalks of Washington Street were welcoming, the skies were blue, the people friendly as those in a small town. It had the self-contained feeling of a historical and pleasant community, yet it was only 20 minutes from the heart of New York City by bus or subway.

I put my house on the market, sold 3/4 of my furniture and possessions--including my car--bought a one-way airline ticket, and packed my bags. I was returning north from the town founded as utopia to the one known as the mile-square city. I had lived my happiest years in New York back in the 1960s and 70s, but with the way things were I found it impossible to afford now. Hoboken would have to do, even though I assumed I would be spending a lot of time in Manhattan. That was four years ago. On December 1, Fairhope friends drove me to the Pensacola airport, where I flew to Newark and spend the first night of my new life in a Marriott in Jersey City. It was much colder in Jersey City than in south Alabama which I had just left, but I was prepared for that. The Marriott is in a neighborhood I know pretty well now, across from the Pavonia Newport Mall.

I walked, that cold December day, from the Marriott to Target and bought a pair of folding chairs, carrying them back to my hotel room. There would be no furniture in the new apartment but an inflatable bed and these until the moving men brought my stuff from Alabama in a few days. I've been around long enough to know a body does need a chair or two.

My furniture did arrive as scheduled, and I began to make adjustments to my new location bit by bit. I found that what furniture I'd kept more than filled the 800-sq.-ft. apartment. Luckily there were lots of big closets, and most of the stuff was shoved in. I bought a little single bed since the bedroom was too tiny to get even a double in comfortably. I was also able to use the little room for my laptop. I began my new blog.

Right away I found a doctor, a dentist, and the public library. I explored Hoboken on foot and got a little disoriented looking for basics like the A & P; tried to adapt to the colder climate, and wrote about all my new situations on the blog. A compulsive blogger in my home town, writing about my life helped me clarify things in my own mind.

The enormity of what I had done was slow to sink in. I had thought about the climate, the isolation, the difficulties of getting everywhere on foot--the blank slate that lay before me--and it all confronted me every morning. It was a whole new life. There would be no phone calls, no board meetings, club meetings, organizational meetings. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t experience this as loneliness, but rather as a transition to something I couldn’t possibly understand. It seemed like an opportunity, but I couldn’t define for what.

I felt a little uncomfortable in my own skin, as if I were in a dream or on vacation in a place where I could speak the language but nothing else. I would get confused on the city streets, even in my old neighborhood in Manhattan. I took it slowly and didn’t push myself into doing too much too soon. It seemed as if my feet always hurt, from the walking and from minor foot surgery I had endured at the end of summer. I was never sure my clothes looked right--everybody in New York and New Jersey seemed to wear black all the time, not the bright colors and patterns I had been looking at in the South for almost 20 years. It took time to realize that this was less about Hoboken than about myself, facing a new phase of life in which I had to admit the person in the mirror looked didn’t look much like the self I had once known.

Writing a blog about these things was helpful in surprising ways. Within a few months people were actually reading the blog, which had not necessarily been the case of my blog in my home town, “Finding Fair Hope.” On the Fairhope blog I had had a few regular readers, but most of them were people I had known in the distant past, keeping in touch with me from far flung outposts. I had about five regulars from contemporary Fairhope, and they were all people I knew who seemed a little uncomfortable about the thought that I might quiz them about the blog the next time I saw them. Hoboken brought me an average of some 40 readers a day, and they began to make themselves known to me by sending me emails and commenting on the blog. The blog posts about "old" Hoboken brought interesting responses and commenters enlivened the blog and informed me about my new-found home. I learned what Hoboken was like in the 1940s and 50s, about the making of On the Waterfront, about the ice cream parlors and the Fabian Theater, Mr. Stover of Demarest High School and what it meant to be a b-n-r in those days. From Chris and Mary I learned where to get the best mutz in town (Lisa's); and I met Christina, who has been a loyal and kind friend in need ever since. I heard many stories about Frank Sinatra, and about the history of Hoboken as the birthplace of baseball and as a place of debarkation for the doughboys of WWI.

As time went by I felt less and less like a visitor and more convinced that this was indeed my real life. I could hop a bus and go see a matinee on Broadway in less than an hour's time and I saw some great ones: Bernadette Peters in both A Little Night Music and Follies, Kevin Kline in Cyrano de Bergerac, Christopher Walken in A Behanding in Spokane, Anything Goes, The Book of Mormon and the extraordinary English import Jerusalem I took my grandsons (who met me at the Port Authority Bus Terminal), to The Farnsworth Invention,, Blythe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, Avenue Q and All My Sons with John Lithgow. I've even omitted a few, but I've seen a boatload of plays.

I took part in a local reading of The Flora Dora Girls by Hoboken playwright Louis La Russo II and met a number of Hoboken and Jersey City actresses in the process. I wrote reviews on my blog of the productions of Hoboken's Hudson Theater Company every year.

With a little time and distance, my perspective on recent life events changes; I rewrote my book about Fairhope Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, retitled and repackaged it as The Fair Hope of Heaven.
I surprised myself by writing a novel last year, set in the utopian Fairhope of 1921, about a young teacher from Hoboken who finds herself there, finds romance, and moves on. It has been rewritten three or four times now and is in the hands of its second editor. I've learned that it's one thing to sail through the writing of fiction and quite another to make it come alive and interesting (nay, compelling) to an unbiased reader. It's more than a project--it is a new experience. An adventure.

After that first year I discovered the joy of going south for at least a month every winter. Last winter, full of blizzards and bitter temperatures in the Northeast, I decided to make that two months this year. I love the beginning of winter, the look of the city at Christmastime, the crunch of snow under my boots, but month and month of grey skies, layering clothes, and dodging slippery black ice, is wearing to the spirit. From South Alabama, I had become accustomed to a flowery and fragrant March. I shall spend that month where it is already spring, and when I return to Hoboken it will be spring here too.

Wherever I am based, things keep happening to me. Over time in Hoboken I've made new friends. I have the option of lunch with a friend or the theatre in New York, a visit with my daughter and her family upstate, or a movie date with a nice guy I met online. People still ask me why I chose Hoboken, and the answer is always that you may not know it, but it's a beautiful little town. I invite you to scroll through this blog for old posts that deal with my growing affection for Hoboken and my life here. It was a good move, just four years ago, and I love living with the promise of still better things to come.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thank You for My Gratitude

It’s hard for me to think of Thanksgiving in the terms that other people say they do: Take some time every day to say something you are thankful for…Say grace at this meal by listing the things you are thankful for…If you had a wonderful mother (father, brother, child, cousin, etc), post this to your status for a day…

I have no memories of a Norman Rockwell meal with Granny placing the long-awaited bird on the table to the sound track of oohs and ahhs. My mother hated cooking and we never had turkey. We did not have a family of cousins, uncles and aunts who gathered together for one or two big meals during the holiday season. I didn’t miss it, because it had never happened. I loved my cousins, but they were teenagers when I was born and they lived in another state. Neither of my grandmothers were living. I had one great aunt whom we all treasured, but she stayed home that day to cook the big meal for her brothers who lived with her. We must have celebrated Thanksgiving with something, but I don’t remember what.

I didn’t have turkey until I was in my late teens, and it always just seemed like an overgrown chicken to me. I learned to cook it and had it often that first year of marriage because it was so cheap. I loved all the things you could do with the leftovers, and with cooking a whole turkey for two people there were always plenty of leftovers. The first Thanksgiving meal I prepared was one month after my wedding, in November of 1960. We had the boss and his wife over for the meal. It was a breeze as far as I remember, but all I know is that I made a cornbread stuffing with oysters. Probably I made pecan pie because it was one of the first things I had learned to cook.

We didn’t serve wine with Thanksgiving in the South in the 1950s. There was no more drinking on that day than any others, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much. There was no tradition of watching the game and getting drunk that has become part of the Thanksgiving ritual in so many homes today. I never saw the family brawls most people report from the tension of trying to create loving scenes of family joy and unity.

As to the thanks-giving,I didn’t learn about real gratitude until I was in my 50s. I was at my first Al-Anon meeting and a man, leading the group, said, “Whenever I get in a fight with my wife, I stop myself now. I say, ‘This is not about her. It’s about me. I want to blame her, I want her to change—but all I can change is myself; all I can change is my reaction to her.’” I had never heard anything like this before. It’s not about her. It’s about me. I was overcome by a feeling that I identified as relief. In these meetings, I learned that moment, it could be about me. “Me” was the only thing I could work on, the only thing I could change.

It was several months later at another meeting when someone suggested the topic of gratitude for the group to talk about. She expressed gratitude for a hammock chair she had bought for herself and the peace she experienced just swinging in it. When it was my turn to talk I said, “Gratitude! That is the silliest topic I’ve ever heard brought up in these meetings. I see nothing spiritual about swinging in a hammock chair…” The group laughed indulgently and told me that as a newcomer my response was valid and that they hadn’t grasped the healing power of gratitude for small things until they had been in the program for a while themselves. They went around the circle, as is done in 12-Step groups, speaking one by one, all contributing their notions of gratitude until finally it sank in, to me. What I had felt that first meeting when the the brave man spoke of fixing himself instead of yelling at his wife—the gift of being allowed to make your life about yourself and not about what some other person is doing or not doing. The feeling I had thought of as relief-at-long-last was not so much relief as gratitude.

Like many intangibles (serenity, for example; and sobriety), in the 12-Step programs, gratitude is regarded as palpable, malleable, a tool to be sought and found. It’s even a goal, to be planned for, sought and found every day of your life, not just when there’s an abundance of food and good cheer around. Gratitude can provide a path to a whole and resplendent life. Finding gratitude on a deep level is part of finding yourself. In Hoboken, or in Fairhope, in the movies, in a book, in creation, or in discovering insights, wherever you might be.

I’ve had many pleasant Thanksgiving meals, in my own homes and in those of others, and I’m sure a national day of thanks is a positive celebration in any society. The concept of gratitude, while suffusing this one day in most lives, transcends the day, the nation, the spirit and can bring a great deal more in depth and breadth to our lives than a day of eating, drinking, and watching football on television ever can.

I’m looking forward to a solitary, simple Thanksgiving Day this year. I love to cook and will give myself something special on the day. But the most special part of the day is the moment of personal realization. The joy of gratitude itself. That is the one thing every human being can give thanks for.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Me and Wall Street

For a minute after I got off the train at the World Trade Center stop I thought I wasn't even going to find the OWS protest. I had thought I'd just follow the crowd, but of course you don't do that in that part of the city--they are going everywhere. I knew Wall Street was somewhere off to my right so I started walking. Names that I recognized cropped up: Cortland, Vesey, Maiden Lane (I always liked that one). I assumed I was going vaguely in the right direction.

I didn't relax until I saw a news camera pointed in the direction I was walking. It had a little maple leaf sticker on the side--I and a cameraman from Canadian television were off to cover the movement. I didn't want to ask, "Can you tell me where the protest is?" Nothing more uncool than that.

Then, there it was. A little square filled with people, tents, and signs. The smell of Indian-vegetarian cooking was in the air, and young people holding signs that said things like PROSECUTE WALL STREET FRAUD lined the edges of the park. There were some 500 or more actively working in the stalls and I even got to hear one of those "human microphone" announcements. Everybody looked so happy and friendly I had trouble believing I was in the right place.

It's a little too easy to say it was the 60s all over again, but that was what it felt like. Maybe cleaner, maybe brighter, and not so angry. It looked to be mostly people in their 20s and 30s. A lady sat doing her knitting next to a sign that proclaimed she was a 52-year-old grandmother, and, "Don't wait for change. Be the change." All the people seemed to be diligently working on something--either the Liberty Library (a section of the park where books of all kinds are donated and traded) or passing out leaflets like The Occupied Wall Street Journal, and talking, explaining the mission and the movement. Nothing ambiguous about it. They were out of work and wanted to make their voices known. The top one per cent has all the money, we are not in that one per cent. We don't like being treated like undeserving children. We don't like that money dictates everything from where the jobs are (overseas) to who gets to be president--or what agenda that president follows.

The signs were well made and elegant. One read, "WE JUST BOUGHT REAL ESTATE IN YOUR MIND." Another held by a rather handsome young man said MEDIA: Please Tell the Truth about What Is Happening Here.

The Occupied Wall Street Journal is a good read. It's literate, upbeat, brief and to the point. It lists places where you can learn about the movement, or volunteer to help. It seems they need help in the areas of Outreach (mostly contacting commuters on the subway platforms and trains); Medical; Facilitation (holding daily training sessions on communication and mediation); Food; Comfort (sleeping in a park is not always comfortable, they need blankets, socks, etc.); and Design (this committee is responsible for the signs).

If you want to follow the occupation, here are some places you can go: or

As for me, the OWS movement has already bought real estate in my head.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Finding Franz (Hals)

I remember a big book of art prints my parents owned. We three children were fascinated by those images and the commentary about them--"The Laughing Cavalier" by Franz Hals, "Birth of Venus" by Botticelli, and John Singer Sargent's "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose."

First, that laughing cavalier, bursting right off the page with his joy, his ornate attire, and that look of devilment in his 17th Century eye. I didn't know what a cavalier was, but I knew a happy man when I saw one. "Birth of Venus" featured a naked lady, and my sister and I didn't know why the little boys in the neighborhood all wanted to ogle that one; but the Sargent could have been the two of us, working with lanterns in an overflow of flowers.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art advertised a Franz Hals show which will run for a few more weeks, and I didn't want to miss it. I had seen some of his work at the art museum in Amsterdam, and regretted that I didn't get to Haarlem to the Hals studio and museum when I was in Holland. I made a note to myself to get to the Met before the show closed.

Last Wednesday I decided, "Now or never," and got myself together enough to find my way to the Met from the PATH train in Hoboken. My friend from Hoboken wrote me this on Facebook when I posted that I was on my way: "Port Authority. Go downstairs to #7 Flushing, 2 stops to grand central, upstairs to uptown Lex. Ave. Get off at 86th." Too bad I didn't see this until after I got home--I had taken the train instead, transferred at 34th to the B, and ended up at the wrong museum. I got a taxi across the park and went into the Met. I didn't know the "suggested" entrance fee is $17 for seniors, but for a chance to see some Franz Halses, I sprang for the full amount.

The Met is always awe-inspiring, with its white noise of hushed echoes of people talking and its elegant, old-world architecture. The Franz Hals were just right, a small collection, really, some on loan but some owned by the museum. It's easy to get overloaded with imagery at any art museum, and tempted as I was to try to get my money's worth by walking through other exhibits, I limited myself to the few rooms with the work of Hals.

He painted peasants and nobles, whores and potentates. He had a stable of young painters learning from him, copying him (literally) and generally helping cement his place in the firmament of great artists for all time. Van Gogh is said to have been stunned by the excellence of his work. The legends accompanying this exhibition all spoke of his brush work, his slashes, and I was glad to have technical elements pointed out to me. But the overarching beauty of his work to me will always be the gusto of his subjects and the artist's grasp of that.He painted court and political scenes, barroom scenes, portraits of reprobates and hookers, all with an unmistakable verve and sometimes a photographic accuracy. (I can only guess at that, since I never saw the subjects in photographs, but I'm sure I'm right about it.) It is a joy to contemplate the work and wonder and the genius who created it.

Coming home, I still really didn't know my way. I knew I wouldn't find a subway on 5th Avenue as I strode downtown--why I didn't just go over to Lex I can't imagine, but I didn't. I walked ten blocks to the street that crosses the park and thought, Well, it's only a few blocks to the West Side subway from here, which was a mistaken assumption. I walked across Central Park, feeling embraced by the beautiful space so beloved by New Yorkers, paused at the lake and fountain, and trudged on until I reached Central Park West, then Columbus Avenue, and then at last my old IRT train that took me to the Port Authority for a bus back to Hoboken.

I'll eventually know how make the trip easily. I have in the past. Somehow I always feel at home in Manhattan no matter how ritzy, how snobbish, how intimidating it gets. When I am there, I feel close to that young woman I once was, the one who had not yet gotten to Amsterdam and only knew "The Laughing Cavalier" from her parents' art book, the one who lived in a shabby rent controlled apartment and felt as if she owned the universe. She and I are close to New York still, and will always appreciate the fact that there is so much real art so near.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Life After Irene

Photo by The Jersey Journal
I've lived through a lot of hurricanes. There are two things I know about them without a doubt. (1, No one can predict where one will hit and (2, no one can predict how strong it will be. All those weather guys in their windbreakers grimacing into the wind and rain are just guessing, and often they are no better at guessing than the man in the street.

The word went out last Thursday and Friday that Hurricane Irene was going to hit near New York City Sunday, and it was going to be strong. That was enough for me. I left on the bus for upstate New York, where my daughter lives with my two grandsons, at 2:30 on Friday.

I've ridden out many a hurricane that hit the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay over the past 18 years. They are fearsome acts of nature, full of lightning, thunder, rain and winds that snap pines in two and slam them into nearby houses, cars and people. The power goes out and inside your abode you hover listening to the sound track that strikes a certain amount of terror into your heart, while you occasionally glance out a window at the show. Evacuation is an option but getting out will only take you to a slow moving line of traffic going nowhere except usually deeper into the storm.

I always stayed home while most friends, particularly those who had not endured the storms, tried to get out, but usually returned with tales of trying to get upstate only to find no lodging and that the hurricane beat them there.

This time, knowing Hoboken's tendency to flood just from a rainstorm, and living in the flood-prone area of the city, I knew enough to call my daughter and say, "I'm coming."

She lives in Kingston, which largely escaped the hurricane although there was some flooding and power outage. Her house was high and not exactly dry, but unscathed. In the early morning hours I awoke, and not hearing thunder or experiencing the flashes of lightning or even hearing wind, I looked out the window of my wee bedroom. It was raining, all right, in heavy sheets--and the wind was blowing it horizontally, hurricane-style. I was glad not to be in Hoboken, as I knew the streets would be rivers and the basement of my building was bound to wash away my stored winter clothes and cartons of old treasured items.

I was unsettled and antsy all day. Being dislocated and picturing your stuff floating around in dirty water can do that for you. I wanted it to be over, and to be home. Unfortunately the buses and trains weren't running on Monday and I had another day of peace and quiet to secretly fret about the condition of my building and my town. My upstairs neighbor, Mark, emailed that there was at least three feet of water in the back yard and much more than that in the basement, and my brand-new hot water heater there was submerged and probably inoperable.

Tuesday morning there was one big bus with the word CHARTER on it in the parking lot at the Kingston bus station. The bus driver had announced when he pulled in, "Here is your bus to Atlantic City!" and we New Yorkers stood on the sidelines grumbling. A few people were getting in, so somebody finally walked over and said something to the bus driver who admitted that it was the New York bus and he was making a little joke. Bus drivers sometimes have an odd sense of humor.

I was able to get home by 11:30 and Mark and his wife were working in the back yard, wringing out what had been in their corner of the basement and I went out at talked with them. The sump pump was working away but there were still a few inches of water to slush around in. I looked around but indulged myself by putting the major clean-up off until today. I called a plumber who can look at my hot water heater Friday.

My electricity and gas is working, my cable tv is fine, and I can shower at the gym. I'm going to the gym this morning and the rest of my day is going to be spent lugging soggy cartons out of the basement and sorting out what to keep and what to discard. I'm lucky--and we in this part of the country are really lucky that we really didn't see much of Irene at all. My heart goes out to the places that were harder hit.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Tale of Three Cities

This year I’ve been to three cities in North America—distinctly different cities, all apparently thriving and each offering a specific kind of beauty.

Minneapolis is thriving, busy, modern. It has an artistic side, an elegant side—the latter for the most part is in St. Paul, which for all practical purposes really is Minneapolis. There is an active arts scene in the twin cities with many theaters, most of them professional, a major university—and writers all over town, getting together, talking, teaching, and of course, writing.

I went to Minneapolis in early April for a writing workshop conducted by author Jonathan Odell. Jon is a transplanted Mississipian, so we had a lot in common as Southerners in a land where the Civil War is seldom discussed, nor do people necessarily sweeten their ice tea, and tall tales are reserved for standup comedians. We tossed around Southern expressions like, “He’s just talkin’ to hear his head roll,” and “It’s hog-killin’ weather.” Jon was conducting a writing workshop, “Writing in the Middle of Your Life,” at the Loft, which is housed in a spacious building on South Washington Avenue with a café, meeting rooms and classrooms—all for writers. A friend met me at the airport the afternoon before the workshop and gave me a tour of the two cities, saying all the while that I really should see it in the summer when it’s at its best. It was a cold early-April day and there was still some snow here and there, but the town, with its bridges, its wonderful modern architecture, and its sense of itself, were a pleasure to experience. We ate at a Pakistani restaurant and had really excellent food in a clattery, casual atmosphere.

Minneapolis seems a business town—intelligent, no-nonsense, with an artistic flair in a very controlled, intellectual kind of way. I viewed some of the historic sections of St. Paul and was astonished to find it was the old-money part of town, dotted with mansions and a beautiful cathedral. Its twin city is the home of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater which is housed in an award-winning new facility that looked to me more like an airport than a theater—but I’m sure still a location of many first-rate productions. Other smaller theater spaces abound in the city. I even was driven past a little Frank Lloyd Wright house with signs in the yard, “This is a private residence. No Trespassing.” How I would have loved to creep around that yard and peek in windows, but no soap.

I loved Minneapolis-St. Paul and hope to visit there again—maybe even in the summer!

Last month I went to Montreal, where my daughter is going to live next year. This bilingual city reminded me of Geneva, where I spent some six years in the 1980s. It is cerebral and artistic at the same time, with a softer feel than Geneva, I would say. Not closed. Not Swiss, let’s face it. Not quite French, but with that almost-American touch of Canada. It was clean and spruce, its neighborhoods green with trees; its international feeling unmistakable with the plethora of restaurants and citizens in the streets in native garb.

We attended an astonishing show at the art museum—a display of the work of French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Gaultier’s work set the fashion world on its ear in 1981 with his extraordinary haute couture versions of street and punk fashion. He’s been doing it neatly ever since, and this exhibit showed his designs up close (don’t touch!). Some were displayed on mannikins with hologram faces, whose eyes follow you, and who sometimes speak. I kept returning to the handsome black hologram, and at last he said to me, “Je t’aime.”

Montreal is busy and varied, upscale and historical. I expect many revisits as my daughter works toward Canadian citizenship and a way to build a better life outside the reckless madness of her native country’s political scene.

I am writing this from the third city on my travels this year—Santa Fe. This is a unique little city, expensive and esthetic, with a distinctly spiritual tone. Its main attractions are churches, including the breathtaking little Loretto Chapel. Loretto has a legend, that the Sisters of Loretto who were working in the lovely little chapel patterned after Sainte-Chapelle in Paris needed a staircase to the loft and prayed to St. Joseph for help. A stranger showed up and built a spiral stair, using wooden pegs instead of nails and creating a work of art that was just the staircase they needed. He then left, not giving his name and not accepting any money for his work. They never saw him again.

There are Indian (Native Americans here still refer to themselves as Indians) stories of miracles, Catholic stories of miracles--the city is awash with tales of magic and religion of all definitions. Santa Fe has a "look," preserved by strict historical preservation ordinances. Almost all the buildings are in what is known locally as Pueblo Revival style, others are called Territorial style which look like Western traditional wood framed structures. The effect is unity with a certain elegance.

It has also become a major center for fine food. Not only Mexican, although that cuisine enhances most of the menus in town--there are top-notch eateries for Italian, Asian and Indian even molecular gastronomy.

There are concerts, indoor and outdoor, often at the art museums. There is jazz and country-western, classical, organized events and impromptu. Santa Fe is one of the centers for fine art in the country; contemporary and folk art museums and galleries
are all over town.

Through it all there shines a city with a distinct personality, like a friend you want to get to know better.

Even the tourists here seem better dressed than in other places.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Shaw Festival, Canada

Benedict Campbell and Deborah Hay in My Fair Lady
The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada is a national treasure I had never experienced until a week ago. Maybe that's forgivable since the nation whose treasure it is is not my own.

I had heard for years from friends that the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is a delight, in a pretty little town on Lake Ontario, but not until this year I was able to make it. I saw Heartbreak House, The Admirable Crichton, My Fair Lady and The President. They are not all Shaw, as you see, but the mission of the Festival is to present the works of Shaw and others who wrote in the same genre at roughly the same period in time and place. According to the notes from Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, "The Shaw Festival was conceived in passion--a local lawyer’s passion for the plays of Bernard Shaw which led to Candida and Don Juan in Hell being staged for eight weekend performances in 1962. That passion swept up a town, hundreds more artists and thousands of theatregoers. It led to expanding the playbill, developing an acting ensemble as its center, adding theatre spaces, and slowly but purposefully becoming an internationally celebrated theatre company renowned for its rigorous intelligence, outstanding production values and brilliant artistry; all led, still, by a huge passion for what we do."

This is the most inspiring piece of writing about the love of theatre that I have ever seen; I do not know of any theatre company in the U.S. that would make such claims. One might think it hyperbole, and in the States I don't even know if it would sell tickets, but for a certifiable theatre nut like me the statement knocks the ball out of the park. It makes me wish I had been living in Niagara-on-the-Lake back in 1962 when the Festival started. I love the notion that the passion swept up the town--and the fact that the Shaw Festival is still a going concern, with crowds flocking to plays like Heartbreak House
is testament to the literal truth of the statement. I've seen local rep companies in the States, most quite well-funded and supported by their communities, but I daresay few of them swept up a town in passion for their mission, not even at the outset.

I always knew there were many excellent actors from Canada but had no idea how many were still practicing their art there in so many venues. The Shaw Festival is only one of many repertory companies that pepper the country. The caliber of talent is astonishing, and the enthusiasm of the audiences is encouraging to say the least. It reminds me of Edinburgh when I visited in the early 1970s--alive with citizens who liked nothing more than talking about plays. The maid in the hotel described her experience at My Fair Lady (she loved it) in great and excited detail. The audience at all plays was a mix of locals and tourists, and some appeared actually to be younger than 70.

I had to think that part of the difference is the removal of the need to be commercially viable; the many theatres of Canada must be line items on the federal budget, and have funding from individuals as well as corporations. The box office is busy and healthy because the country wants and needs a theatre but the boost from an enlightened government makes box office only one of the ways to keep a theatre afloat.
Michael Ball in Heartbreak House

Heartbreak House was my favorite of the plays I saw. Here the actors seemed very English, perfectly at home in the period of the play and the nonconformist message. It's a difficult play, talky and demanding, with strange, fantastical characters and situations; yet like all of Shaw's work there is a clear point of view coming from the playwright. It had laughs, it had romance, it had charm--but the overarching message was serious and profound. The actors were more than equipped to the task, with perfect diction and Shavian logic and intellect. I thought often how lucky they were to be Canadians and have that little touch of the U.S. overlaid with a touch of their English heritage--and their specifically Canadian determination, brilliance and optimism.

It is a theatre to be proud of. Now I look forward to finding the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and getting to know more of my neighbors to the north.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is the Theatre Dead? Not on Your Motherf**cking Life

I rushed to the bus to New York yesterday because I didn’t want to be late for my matinee of The Motherf**ker With the Hat. I was in the mood for some laughs, and the show will probably close soon, so there was reason to get in gear and go.

I made it in time, got my seat in the center of the back row (it’s not a huge theater) and could tell from the set I was in for a great ride. I expected some comic turns by the always irreverent Chris Rock, maybe a stand-up type routine or two tied together with a loose plot and a lot of people running back and forth.

The play wasn’t like that at all. It began with a long telephone monologue by the extremely funny and hip Elizabeth Rodriguez. She’s playing a pretty if scruffy young woman talking on the phone to her mother and acting very much as if she is the mother herself. By the end of the speech she’s done a line of cocaine and had the audience howling with laughter. Her boyfriend enters, played magnificently by Bobby Cannavale, upbeat (for the only time in the play) and bragging about having landed a job. They are going to celebrate any minute—until he sees an unidentified man’s hat on a table in the room and everything in both their worlds changes forever.

The set does the first of its own dances now, revolving, looping, furniture folding down into the floor and up from another part of the floor. We are in a different setting where our hero is consulting with his AA sponsor, who is played very suavely by Chris Rock. I was delighted to see an AA element effectively worked into the play, neither as the crux of the script nor its deus ex machina. Just a fact of life. Like it or not. I for one love the 12-Step programs.

Other characters come in, other sets, and as the play moves on we cannot wait to see what happens next. It’s so expertly written that the viewer doesn’t think of it as a string of long monologues woven together to tell a story, which, on one level, it is. The use of profanity is essential—this script elevates street language to poetry and raises the mundane, tawdry situations of everyday life of flawed, dirty, confused people to classical heights. It was a wondrous experience in the theater.

When I first lived in New York in the mid-1960s, the theater was thought to be pretty much a dying elephant in the city. Plays were old-fashioned and the best actors had gone on to be movie stars. I have an announcement to make. Great theater has made a roaring comeback, and it is not going away. If what I’ve seen in the last 12 months is any indication, there is still a need to explore our psyches and souls in this way. The playhouse was full, and not only with us greybeards either. There were all kinds of people in that audience, with all kinds of hair, from dreadlocks to perms and literally every color of the rainbow. Plays like this speak to a vital and dynamic audience, with a voice even we old-timers appreciate. I admit some of the rapid-fire dialogue went past me, but I was transfixed from the get-go.

Was it a star turn for Chris Rock? Not so much as it was an excellent vehicle to show him as an actor rather than just an insult comic, and he acquitted himself superbly. More than that, it was a production that grew out of love, from a theater company of actors who have worked together for years, from the Public Theater to Broadway—a playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, who wrote from his own heart for actors he knew; and a director, Anna D. Shapiro, who approached the material with simplicity and vigor. Even the scenery by Todd Rosenthal whirled about sleekly and seamlessly, and appeared to be a participant in the drama and comedy of these lives. It was an ensemble of equals, including Yul Vazquez in an ambiguous role of a light-in-his-loafers cousin balancing the volatile nature of the Cannavale macho man; and Annabella Sciorra, who radiated rage and tenderness as the broken-hearted ball-buster wife of the AA sponsor.

There is much in this play that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Our hearts are touched, we laugh, we are astonished. What more can we ask of live theater?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Looking at Memorial Day

Memorial Day, I was taught, was started in the South after the Civil War. Widows, mothers, and others who loved men who had lost their lives in the defense of the South in that tragic war went to cemeteries often and put flowers on the graves of their beloved men. It became institutionalized as Confederate Memorial Day, within a few years co-opted by the bereaved on both sides. At first the women of the North set aside their day for decorating graves, and they called it Decoration Day; but over time the two sides came together to honor all who died in the Civil War under the appellation of Memorial Day, and May 30 was designated. In recent years the date has been made flexible in order to allow a three-day weekend.

In the South, where many diehards still reside, there are pockets where Confederate Memorial Day is observed on various days in the year, but let us face it, there have been many more men lost in many other wars, and the memories of the lost Southern cause have been blurred by so many re-inventions that there is absolutely no point in defending anything about that particular war.

Imagine my surprise in reading this in an article by Adam Cohen in today's New York Times:

Memorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. The holiday was so closely associated with the Union side, and with the fight for emancipation, that Southern states quickly established their own rival Confederate Memorial Day.

He gets his information from an impeccable source, Dr. David Blight of Yale University, who has written several award-winning histories espousing this theory. In fact, Dr. Blight's take on that particular war has helped shape our perceptions of our wars, our history, and our racism.

Well and good, and I hope I'm not considered a racist (but I feel certain I would be by Dr. Blight) because of what Memorial Day means to me. I don't love the holiday (except that it usually falls on my birthday), and I certainly don't love the Civil War or the Southern cause. I Googled Memorial Day and found many an entry, not all of which support the idea that the day itself has helped the country to proceed with ignoring civil rights. This one I found quite fair and balanced, partly because it re-tells the old old story I grew up with, true or false. Don't miss the page on Mrs. Logan.

Let us observe the day tomorrow with not receiving mail, finding the bank closed, thinking of the real meaning of each and every war, and also not forgetting that somewhere within the long weekend was my birthday.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hip Hooray and Ballyhoo

D.A. Gravel, Mark Bogdanos, Anneli Curnock

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is an odd title for a play. And the play, presented by the Hudson Theatre Ensemble tonight, next Friday and Saturday nights, doesn't disappoint. It introduces us to a segment of the population we might never have met, and over the course of the evening, we learn to love them.

I grew up in the South and knew very few Jews in the region. Playwright (Driving Miss Daisy) Alfred Uhry, on the other hand, knew them first hand and, luckily for us, tells their stories in touching and comic ways. Seeing it is an enlightening and heartwarming experience.

The play opens in an old-fashioned, gently theatrical way. It is Christmas in Atlanta, the season of the very year Gone With the Wind opened at Loew's Grand on Peachtree Street. I lived in Atlanta in the 1960s and know very well the devotion that city has had to that book and movie over the years. It is the perfect moment in time for a play about Atlanta's Jewish population, working hard to assimilate just as Hitler is gathering forces to annihilate their relatives in Europe. Lala Levy, charmingly portrayed by Anneli Curnock, is decorating a Christmas tree, as her mother explains that Christmas is a time for decorations and has nothing to do with the birth of any messiah. Lala is a piece of work--defensive, angry, and more than a little bit eccentric. Her mother is concerned that she'll never find a husband, and that a husband with good Jewish bloodlines is her only hope.

The action moves slowly, just like an old-fashioned, gently theatrical play should. One by one we meet the family--Uncle Adolph, the family patriarch, his other niece Sunny, who doesn't look Jewish; her pleasantly dim mother (played winningly by Hudson favorite Florence Pape) and the young men who come to call. By the end of the first act we have real drama, as we have learned the conflicts that hold this little family unit together and pull them apart at the same time. The two cousins have a very moving confrontation which spells out one of the basic themes of play--a kind of sibling rivalry and family feud that lies just under the surface.

The main theme, however, is heightened by the entrance into this world of a young Jewish man from Brooklyn who comes to work for Uncle Adolph. He is immediately turned off by the pushy Lala, and falls for Sunny, who is intrigued by his exotic Jewishness. It is through him that we contrast the ways Jews lived in the South at that time, setting up social strata similar to that which they saw all around them in the WASP world, and the European Jews of New York, who were so proud of the Jewishness of celebrities who for the most part were in the closet, so to speak.

What's the ballyhoo? Apparently there is a big event, "The Ballyhoo," sort of a coming-out party for eligible young Jews all over the South, who come to Atlanta every year to meet each other. I never heard of it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It is the logical place for these characters to get together.

As usual for the Hudson Theatre Ensemble, a phantom director has assembled a first rate cast and guided them to a production that is interesting as well as entertaining. Mark Bogdanos is outstanding--funny and lovable, but totally convincing as the head of the family company. I even believed him when he snoozed. D.A. Gravel is touching as the frustrated and sometimes obnoxious sister, left to live her life through her very unsatisfying daughter. Lauren Hayden is talented as well as beautiful. We root for her and her young man as soon as we see them together for the first time. Steve Yates plays the visitor from a different world with vitality and appeal, and Ross Weinberg makes us like a schmoe who thinks he's smart--and leaves us with the one unforgettable line of the evening.

The matinee performance tomorrow at 3 is sold out, but who knows? There might be standing room. Otherwise, don't miss this one--at the Hudson School Performance Space at Park and 6th, 8 P.M. tonight and next weekend.

Photo by John Crittenden

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Losing St. Patrick

Hoboken traditionally celebrates St. Patrick's Day with a big parade the first Saturday in March. When I was new in town (March 2008) and hadn't witnessed the spectacle, I went to the parade eagerly and enjoyed myself. At that point I was living on Hudson Street between 6th and 7th, and I staked out a place for myself in front of Benny Tudino's pizza parlor. There was a big crowd, mostly lined up in front of the bars on Washington Street for all I could tell.

There were vendors selling green beads and boas of green feathers, green t-shirts and funny hats. I watched the parade, enjoyed a slice of pizza, chatted a little with some of the revelers, but was not quite with it enough to see it for what it was--a drunken mob scene made up of mostly college kids that would last long into the night. I was home shortly after 1 P.M. and could still hear the roar of the crowd from my third-floor walkup all day long. I reflected on St. Patrick, the Irish, the human need for carnival, and parades I had seen in my lifetime. On March 17, I went to a nice bar and ordered an Irish Coffee. I was disappointed that the bartender just poured some Irish whiskey into some stale coffee left over from the morning and served me that in a cup. No real Irish here. I mentioned my experience of the parade and was told that most Hoboken residents vacate the area on the day of the St. Patrick's parade and leave the celebrating to out-of-towners, mostly college kids looking for a place to get knee-walking drunk, and a certain amount of gratuitous violence, contained by an augmented police force.

The next year I didn't bother with St. Patrick's Day or its celebration. Last year I went to a matinee on Broadway. Yesterday was parade day, so I traipsed to New York again, this time in search of a nice French bistro where I could have a light meal and a cineplex that was showing some kind of offbeat movie.

The movie I found was Barney's Version, which stars one of my favorite actors, Paul Giamatti. It was playing in the West Village, which is one of my favorite places to be in Manhattan--I used to work there at the old Fairchild Publications on W. 12th Street, and I defy anyone to find a better neighborhood for young, bright, semi-artistic people to work in in New York. The area is haunted for me now, and browsing there is sure to stir up memories and create an experience unto itself.

I walked on West 12th looking for a nice place for a little Frenchy meal. There was an Italian place right where Il Bambino used to be, on the corner of 12th and University Place, but I can get good Italian anytime in Hoboken, so I veered onto University where I saw a sign that said Jack Bistro and ventured in. It felt very French, and very noisy--obviously a favorite for weekend brunch in the neighborhood. I ordered a bowl of onion soup dreading the plunge through the cheese toast to the roiling-hot deliciousness beneath, but I needn't have worried. The soup was served in a big white plate and the crouton was a slice of oblong ciabatta covered in melted Gruyere. You could actually pick up the toast, nibble, and place it back on the soup to soak up liquid. I never had the dish served this way and shall never forget it. Excellent food, excellent service, and a tab of $7.89 or thereabouts. I hope that cafe lasts a long time; I intend to return. At the bar as I was leaving two young beauties in green t-shirts were asked, "Excuse me, but are you on your way to Hoboken?" and they said they were.

I, on the other hand, was on my way to the 13th St. Quad Cinema, where the movie awaited me. Paul Giamatti played an obnoxious young man, not unlike the Duddy Kravitz of a previous book and film, fumbling, hustling and conning his way through life, but this one is saved by an angel of a wife and has a decent life in spite of himself. I also couldn't help but be a bit reminded of The Heartbreak Kid, for reasons that will be obvious to those who see both movies. Beautifully done, the movie includes a great turn by Minnie Driver, an actress who has not touched me much before this, Dustin Hoffman, who never fails to touch me, and an actress I had not made note of before named Rosamund Pike. As the angel-wife, she is flawless and awesomely good. You might say "too good to be true," but don't forget, this is Barney's version of the story. I loved the movie, but at times it is difficult to take.

As I left the theater a lady in the row behind me said, "Are you Jewish?" and I said I wasn't. Then she said, "That was the most Jewish movie I've ever seen--it had it all!" And I said I agreed it was very Jewish, but that it had universal appeal. We were both wiping our eyes.

Coming home, I got the train and decided to take the Light Rail in Hoboken instead of walking through the milling crowds in green t-shirts. Unfortunately the Light Rail was diverted through Jersey City, but, as I had to change trains at the Newport stop, I ran into Macy's and bought some costume jewelry. I ended doing what I liked on this odd day in Hoboken--basically I got out of town, lost the madness that is connected to St. Patrick's Day here (and Mardi Gras in my hometown). Sometimes the best plan is to wait until the 17th and reach for a glass of Bailey's in honor of St. Patrick then, if you do anything at all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Finding Old Hoboken

My novel That Was Tomorrow takes a young woman on a journey exactly the reverse of my own. She was born in Hoboken in 1895, becomes a schoolteacher (here the likeness ends), and travels to Fairhope, Alabama, to work in the experimental School of Organic Education under the direction of the magnificent visionary Marietta Johnson, whose school was founded the same year as the one in Rome founded by Maria Montessori.

I try to capture the flavor of the early 20th century as well as the mood of Hoboken in those days. If you find this excerpt interesting, I have about 300 more pages to go, and I'll let you know when I actually have a book.

Amelia’s upbringing in the crowded immigrant settlement of Hoboken, separated from New York City only by the wide and serviceable river named after explorer Henry Hudson, had been privileged and protected. Her parents were part of what was known locally as the “upper crust,” the Germans who had settled in Hoboken in the 1870s, before waves of Irish and Italians came to fill the town at the turn of the century. The wealthy families now resided in the prestige houses on Castle Point Terrace and Hudson Street, some with views of the growing Manhattan skyline. Dr. Weiss and his wife Gertrude were well respected, and as an only child Amelia, although well cared for in every way, was left on her own with a nanny much of her time.

Amelia dared not to feel lonely or neglected, but it was her plight to be so, as her parents were occupied with their lives outside their home and their daughter. She had few toys to play with—one porcelain-headed doll named Patricia, which she always thought the most beautiful of names, and a stuffed bear she had named Nicodemus. These companions helped her create a separate world to inhabit, which transported her out of the ordinary. She did enjoy the bear more than the delicate Patricia, as he withstood rougher treatment and inspired more challenging games. The doll was always herself, stolid and mature, and not receptive to bumptious play, if any real play at all. Patricia had to be handled carefully, and with that frozen face, made Amelia think of her mother, Gertrude, who had married a doctor and moved upward in local society.

Hoboken was a rugged little town in the early 1900’s. It was approximately one mile wide from the cliffs of the Palisades to the Hudson, and a mile in length north to south, bordered at the southern end and the western cliff by Jersey City and by Weehawken hard by the north. The poor were everywhere, from soot-stained children—locally referred to as ragamuffins—on the pavement, to the shabby shops along the side streets and the bars in the waterfront district nicknamed The Barbary Coast by locals. On the lower streets near the river there were vaudeville theaters, dingy cafés, bars, and brothels—all kept quite busy by a lively, noisy contingent of stevedores and sailors. The section known as “downtown” was actually on the Western border at the cliffs upon which stood Jersey City. In the old days this border area of Hoboken had been a swamp, but it had been filled in to provide land for tenement houses for the blue collar workers who were steadily populating the town. The streets were named for U.S. presidents, as a way to acquaint newcomers and their children with American history. There were old houses in Hoboken—built in the early 1800s—and there were some quite elegant ones in the Weiss’ neighborhood. The two elements of town were separated by the invisible wall of class, education, and money.

The main street of Hoboken was called Washington Street. It was a boulevard, really, bisecting the town’s population of immigrants and settlers with money and some amount of pedigree. Hoboken’s citizens called it “the avenue,” and on it were located the best shops in town, a few restaurants, pharmacies, and little stores where sundry items and necessaries could be bought. Amelia’s grandfather, Conrad Weiss, owned one of the oldest retail establishments on the avenue. The store bore his name across the top of the entrance door.

Amelia had not been exposed to the normal rough-and-tumble activities of other children, but began her education at home at the hands of her nanny, Miss Pritchart, for the kind of life Gertrude thought proper. Miss Pritchart was an old fashioned despot, certain that children should be seen and not heard, and seen only in their cleanest finery. A spinster in her fifties, really rather old in early 20th century terms, Miss Pritchart tied her white hair severely into a little bun on the back of her head and except for the occasional lace collar wore no ornament or color. Since her early twenties she had been charged, as a teacher and governess, with seeing to it that children were exposed to a strict academic regimen and that they were obedient and well-mannered. Her brisk, no-nonsense style appealed to Gertrude. Where Gertrude was fearful and insecure, Miss Pritchart struck the right chord of assurance and sense of purpose. She was consistent and unyielding, and to her mind and to Gertrude’s this was good for children, who in their way of thinking were always on the verge of breaking something, whether it be an heirloom or an academic principle.

She needn’t worry about Amelia, who was so eager to please that she had early on adopted a quiet manner and a malleable spirit.

Miss Pritchart was compelled, nonetheless, to impose her doctrine of original sin to the child. It was her contention, and that of many early childhood educators of her day, that children would do anything to outwit the adults in charge of them, and that the devil lurked near them at all times to lead them into sins of misbehavior and ultimately seduce them into lives of debauchery. Only by constant relating to a child what was wrong and impressing upon him how deficient he was could an adult gain the proper respect of the child and get him to focus on work, the most important facet of his young life.

She had been brought into Amelia’s life at the age of three and was by her side for two formative years. Amelia’s parents were not to be involved in her daily affairs, but they saw her every evening after she had had her bath and dinner alone. She was trained by Miss Pritchart to give them a recital of what she had learned during the day before being taken upstairs to bed. Once a month her grandfather, Conrad Weiss, would take the child for a walk in the morning and show her a little of the activity in Hoboken, or take her to Manhattan on the clattering subway train to see a museum or to play in Central Park.

She was most at ease on these outings with her grandfather, who treasured the child’s occasional ability to find merriment in small things. He saw in her the promise of sunshine and childhood itself. The old man had done his work in the world, even though he still kept his hand in his work at the store. He had raised his family and set away a great deal of money; the little girl would want for nothing when she grew up. Conrad Weiss was pleased with his granddaughter’s quick, alert mind and her resemblance to his own wife, who had died before the child was born.

Coming from the old country, he had been extremely strict with his own children, and had little patience with his son Frederick, Amelia’s father. Frederick had been a willful boy, and moody too, but had a good mind and had applied himself enough to get through medical school and to become a doctor. As he grew up and married, he had settled somewhat, Conrad could see that, but he still would not listen to his father in certain matters, and escaped from the old man however he could. His wife was upright and virtuous, but seemed distant and perhaps a bit too fragile to please Conrad. He could not ascertain the nature of their relationship, as they shared a big, important house but seemed like formal acquaintances rather than man and wife. The child was not given affection from either parent, and certainly not from the woman in whose care they had placed her.

Conrad would take little Amelia to the park at Elysian Fields and tell her about the baseball games and the ferris wheel that used to be there. Hoboken had once been a playground for the wealthy of New York City, who would take the old steamers for weekend getaways, and when he sat with the little girl, he relived those days and told her of the past glories of the park, now scaled down in size and far from glorious. When Conrad moved to Hoboken as a boy with his family from Germany in the 1840’s it was already changing. Col. Stevens, who had started the town as a resort for New Yorkers, had died and left the real estate he had established as parks and recreation to be managed by his family, and bit by bit they were selling the land for factories and industrial use.

It was the place where the first baseball in America was played, Grandpa Weiss told her, and a garden spot for children to explore among the caves and rocks. Now there were factories—one large one for Maxwell House Coffee, another for Lipton Tea—nearby—and the waterfront area was dingy, dangerous, and not a place for children. Nevertheless, the old man knew where the special places were, and would take the girl up the hill to look at Stevens’ castle, the palatial home built by the Col. Stevens, and now a part of Stevens Institute, an engineering school for young men.

Note: Editing and shaping the book That Was Tomorrow, I found I had to eliminate much of this. There are still some scenes set in Hoboken, and the book is now available in electronic format on amazon, Barnes & Noble, and  my own website.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Prince of an Actor

As soon as I saw the first preview some months ago I knew I'd love The King's Speech, the picture that is garnering Best Actor awards for its lead, Colin Firth. Who could resist this marvelous man playing George VI of England, struggling with a crippling speech impediment and facing the challenge of taking over the throne of England?

Colin Firth won the hearts of the world when he defined the elusive, enigmatic Fitzwilliam Darcy in the first-rate 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice,
which introduced millions to the works of Jane Austen. To me he will always exemplify Darcy's integrity and subtle sex appeal. He has moved far beyond that role now, and his portrayal of the reluctant king surely fixes him permanently in the firmament of great English actors. I can see a knighthood in his future.

The movie focuses on the causes of stammering, examined by an extraordinary teacher and lay therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), and worked on with the help of a strong and supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter). Bonham Carter has never been more dignified, nor has she embodied a known entity more convincingly. We felt the Queen really was like that, and we hoped the family life was as warm and touching as it seemed. I remember the two princesses constantly in newsreels, and the fascination at Elizabeth's wedding, then Margaret's, and the lives they led as young women. This movie reveals a background I did not know, the England of those little girls' parents, their wastrel uncle born to be king but not up to the job. I knew about Wallis Simpson, of course, and knew that elderly couple--the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by then--who globe-hopped and spent a long marriage seeking recognition they little deserved.

In the movie, we are introduced to the vicissitudes of speech therapy. Rush is patient, wise, and sometimes more than a bit cheeky in working with the young royal. It is the only way this teacher knows how to be in order to break down the defenses Bertie has built up in his years of shame over his speech impediment. This element of the film is most touching, this breaking through and reaching the reserved young man on a basic level which he may never have revealed to anybody. The painful work reaches the crux of his speech and communication problem and moves him to greatness he might never have come near otherwise. Looking at it from today's perspective it is hard to believe how cruel some caregivers have been to little children, and hard to believe that with serious work it can in some cases be undone.

Colin Firth is always a pleasure to watch, with his very unassuming intensity. He is one of the best practitioners of the discipline and restraint that is seen in the best of the English theatre. We are lucky that Hollywood has discovered him and that we may see him for years to come. Sir Colin? Not yet. But mark my words.