The Present of the Past

A rehearsal room in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, 1976 – I am beside myself with the glamour of this dirty little space whose windows look out over a street grimy with trash that the underfunded city can’t afford to clean. A year earlier, Gerry Ford hadn’t told New York City to Drop Dead but The Daily News wrote a headline that claimed he did and their headline made national headlines.  Bottom line, we had all been given fair warning that New York was not the place to be.

But Howard said I looked like a real New Yorker and Nancy said she wanted to move to the city and wanted a roommate and so here I am.  With a glamorous job in the lower echelons of an advertising agency and sitting in a rehearsal room – in New York – in Greenwich Village…home at last.

I have no real right to be in this rehearsal room at all.  I have written nothing, directed nothing, composed nothing.  I am auditioning for nothing and certainly have been cast in nothing.  But I am, as I have always been and will always be, Howard’s sister, giving me a legitimacy of title not unlike that of Britain’s royal family.  I have not earned the right to be here, I was born to it.   However, I do have to earn the right to stay.

The play is The Confirmation.  It is Howard’s first full-length play.  He’s written two one acts and two musicals, he’s 26 years old and has been in New York for two years.  This is his big chance.

The Confirmation is about a Jewish family in northwest Baltimore.  Kind of like ours.  With a father very much like ours.  And a mother suspiciously like ours.  And a daughter but no son, so see, it’s not really our family at all.

The daughter’s name is Rachel.

Rachel was named for her father’s late mother.  It’s a Jewish tradition.  For instance, I happen to be named Sarah, which is the name of my father’s late mother.

The play doesn’t have a brother.  But for me, it doesn’t need one.  Howard is present in every word every character says.  He is especially present in every word that Rachel says.  Rachel is more Howard than me.  But she’s kind of like me if I had the same way with words, the same bite, as my brother.  It’s complicated.

The fundamental moment in The Confirmation never took place in our house…but the fundamental conflict absolutely did.

The play is going to run for five nights at the Wonderhorse Theater on Fourth and Bowery as part of a Circle Rep “Projects in Progress.”  Which is theater speak for, “we’ll throw this out there, see what happens and give the kid a little New York face time.”

Stuart White, the director, is auditioning actors for Arnold and needs someone to read Rachel’s lines.  He grins at me, “Sarah, you can read Rachel right?  Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Not a problem at all.  A little surreal, that’s all.  I’m playing a character who is me but not me for an actor who is, and isn’t my late father for a play my brother has written about our family but not about our family.

I love every minute of reading Rachel and harbor a fantasy that Stuart will not find an appropriate Rachel and cast me in what is, pretty clearly, the role of my lifetime.

Alas, Stuart casts a very good actress named June Stein to play Rachel and my unacknowledged fantasy dies the death it most certainly deserves.

Years later, after Howard died, I started organizing his papers, finding pages and pages of notes taken while he prepared to write The Confirmation.  He had been writing thoughts and questions about that pivotal moment in our family’s life for years, before ever beginning to write the play.

I’ve worked with creative people for a long time, but with Howard I had the naïve assumption that his writing sprang from him fully formed.  I thought that, unlike other writers, Howard didn’t really have to work at his brilliance.  Call it a hazard of hero worship, or maybe just willful sibling blindness.

And now here I am, taking notes on our family, sharing some moments on blogs, keeping some private.  Trying to figure it out.  Trying to see what I, too, can make of us.