June 30, 2008

The sting of summer

I got my first mosquito bite of the season yesterday, on the outside edge of my 
pinky finger, left hand. You know the spot. It's a favorite with mosquitoes. The 
bite itched intensely for a few minutes, then disappeared.

It's been said that air conditioning and mosquito control made year-round living in 
Florida possible. But the little salt-water mosquitoes down here are wimpy 
wannabees compared to the blood-sucking vampire helicopters up north. We used 
to come in covered with bites, one big welt, from a tramp in the Michigan woods 
of my boyhood. Limbs splashed with the carnage of battle. My friend Gary used to 
let one alight on his arm, then stretch his skin so taught around it that it couldn't 
pull its proboscis out. He'd watch it fill up with blood until it exploded. Or so he told 
me. I tried it. The sucker filled up to massive dimensions... and then flew away. 
I'm still pretty gullible. That was quite the bite.

But mosquitoes were minor league compared to the deer flies. Where mosquitoes 
are subtle and indolent, deer flies are blatant and swift. They come screaming in 
like F16s and their sharp bite registers instantly and outrageously. In a fit, you'll 
smack your own face (literally adding insult to injury) long after the little demon 
has already circled around, an instant later, for a go at your ear. There were 
whole sections of trails that the deer flies simply owned. If you weren't clothed 
from head to toe (a burka may have worked), your only hope was to run, arms 
flailing, through their hood, as fast as possible. Which, like trying to outsmart the 
rain by running through it, seemed to produce shortened, but accelerated, 

We do have fire ants. I thought I was immune by now, not having noticed a bite in 
some time. But I must have parked my bike on one of their outposts at the beach 
a couple weeks ago. I was chaining the bike to a no parking sign when a swat 
team scrambled up my leg. They're fast, in an earthbound, methodical sort of 
way. By the time you've felt the first sting, you're likely to acquire a few more 
before they're all brushed off. Maddened swarms have been known to kill small 
animals and seriously harass cattle. They dig in with mandibles, then inject, with a 
tail sting, a shot of Solenopsin, a toxic alkaloid venom. The sting commonly 
produces a small, painfully itchy pustule that can break open and drain, crust over, 
break again, and drain some more. It should be pointed out that the ants attack 
when disturbed; they don't hunt you the way a mosquito or deer fly would. 
Though that may strike the victim as a distinction without a difference.

June 21, 2008

June 18, 2008

Marvin's Room

Marvin's Room is a play that is popular with community theater. The 1996 movie had an outstanding cast led by Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro and Hume Cronyn. Here's my revue of a local production:

The late playwright Scott McPherson’s comedy hit “Marvin’s Room,” continues its run at Cultural Park Theatre for two more weekends. The wrenching, and often grotesquely funny play about family dysfunction and upheaval, takes on the subject of how families care for their terminally ill, and ultimately, one another.

McPherson had a composer’s knack for pastiche, and stitched together a crazy quilt that entwines chaos and comfort. In director Leo Wolfe’s production, the pastiche of McPherson’s comedy is formalized and restated in the set design: two panels of quilts are suspended in a layered backdrop that suggest comfort in the midst of impending mortality. Pieces of realistic sets, a kitchen, a living room, a back yard at night, are woven into, and out of, the design. Marvin, the terminally ill father, never leaves his bedded nook in the nether reaches of his softly lit room upstage. Though semi-comatose, Marvin seems the most normal of characters in this reunion of a family shaken and discombobulated like the letters in a game of Boggle. His all-too-aware detachment from the tragicomedy around him suggests that impending death may be the safest place to be.

The audience at a recent performance was laughing by the third line of the play and found itself unable to calm down as the play’s patches of drama and pathos began to appear. This takes the audience off guard, which finds itself laughing at moments it may otherwise have thought sacrosanct. The off-beat, on-target characters abet the iconoclastic mood, and like the Simpsons, they resonate with our experience of our own. All families, after all, are a bit weird.

Bessie (Lisa Vagner), has been the sole caregiver of terminally ill father Marvin (Jim Otto), and a dotty aunt (Lee Otto), for almost two decades. Marvin and aunt Ruth are dead-enders, both helpless in their own ways, both sustained and protected by Bessie’s sacrificial love. It’s an autumnal world, sunset-hued, and sometimes desperately funny. Aunt Ruth’s pacemaker intermittently opens the garage door, usually when she’s hugged. Marvin’s favorite pastime, a gentle rebuke to Bessie’s propriety, is to watch Ruth flick the beam of a flashlight around the walls of his room. But even Bessie’s frustrations fit like an old glove. “Why can’t you help more?” Bessie complains to dotty Aunt Ruth. “Never mind,” she reminds herself. “You’ll just make a mess.” But her impatience with her wards are fraught with affection, the kind one feels for a hapless old pet. “Dad’s dying very slow,“ she reflects, “so I don’t miss a thing.”

Into this sweetly eccentric, but oddly privileged existence, a new reality intrudes, testing the mettle of Bessie’s devotion: Bessie herself is diagnosed with leukemia. Her only chance for survival is a bone marrow transplant. Will her sister Lee (Marty Wisher), estranged since their father’s stroke seventeen years ago, be a match? And if not, will Lee’s son, Hank?

Lee agrees, for her own reasons, to pack up herself and her two kids, after springing teen Hank (Andy Tremelling) from the institution where he was placed after burning down his mother’s house. Lee and sons Hank and Charlie (Dylan Dixon) trudge back home to Florida, where they’ll be tested for their bone marrow’s compatibility with Bessie‘s.

Director Gary Wilson’s cast has been honed to vivid relief, and connects as an ensemble. Returning to the theater after a starring role in CPT’s Wally’s CafĂ©, actress Marty Wisher’s comic timing, always deft, is combined here with an ability to project the inner struggle behind Lee’s shallowness. Because Lee’s superficiality is so much fun to watch, it’s easy to underestimate her sacrifice. Setting aside her dream of a cosmetology career, on the brink of graduating from beauty school, to try to rescue sister Bessie is a gesture that has its own cost. Or is the family crisis an opportunity for Lee to flee the unfamiliar challenges of success? Such questions abound in the play’s complex threads of mercy and self-absorption. Lee has become a control freak out of sheer panic.

In an early scene Lee and Hank meet with psychiatrist Dr. Charlotte (LuAnn Guy) to secure Hank’s parole from the institution where he is being treated for his rebellion and pyromania. In the pre-release interview Hank, having long given up trying to communicate with the adults in his life, says exactly what the process requires and nothing more. Dr. Charlotte, exasperated, presses him, “Is there anything you want to tell your mother?” “Ok,” Hank tersely tosses off, without a trace of regret. “I’m sorry I burned the house down.”

When they arrive in Florida, Hank withholds his cooperation with the testing. His bone marrow is  the only turf he controls. But little by little, Bessie wins Hank’s trust. A teen outlaw savant, Hank is a tale-spinner who forces those around him to face unpleasant truths. “Nobody does anything unless they get something out of it,” he tells Bessie. With an adolescent’s knack for targeting adult posturing, while ignoring his own, he exploits the visitor’s high ground and blurts “Don’t you ever wish he would just die!”  Is it a question that Bessie is prepared to answer?

As Bessie, newcomer Lisa Vagner gives a centered, glowing performance. A pilot light that flickers but never dies, Bessie’s self-revelation is a gently gathering light. “I've been so lucky to have been able to love someone so much,'' she discovers. In a devastating moment in the play, Bessie describes the loss of her one romantic love, the circumstances of which challenge the audience to at least appreciate just what it is they’re laughing at, if not stop laughing.

LuAnne Guy’s multiple-character performance is hilarious, and Paul Rose’s bumbling Dr. Wally, though a bit amorphous, has a bedside manner that tends to evoke terror with his every attempt at reassurance. Lee Otto brings her formidable stage presence and wonderful vocal gifts to the role of Aunt Ruth. As the youngest character in the play, Charlie is closest (from his end of life’s timeline) to the non-existence that has liberated moribund Marvin. They’re natural allies. Free from the entanglements that plague the adults around him, Charlie sleepwalks through the play with his nose in a book, hovering above the fray like the sprite in the Fantasticks.

When the lights dim between scenes, the lingering illumination between the quilt panels reveals a cross, an abiding presence, hidden in plain sight. Whatever good samaritanism the family crisis has evoked, it arises from characters who are themselves hardly less desperate than those they are trying to save. And that, at the end of the night, is the source of the play’s authenticity, and grace.

June 5, 2008


The New Yorker sent me another final notice that my subscription had run out. I have a pile of unread issues, mixed approximately 5:1, a literary martini, with my unread Harper's'. I'll grab an issue, March, August, whatever, from time to time, and tote it to bathroom or beach. I enjoy seeing, in passing, that stack of magazines, its reassuring height, still growing, ever more slowly, but still a bit faster than my ability or inclination to consume.

June 1, 2008

Laelia 2

My laelia flowered with a rush this year. Just a week from the first blossom, every bud had climbed out of its sheath and opened, all thirty nine, her new personal best.

I was concerned; a posse of mealybugs had swept into our peaceful niche last winter. They had penetrated down into the new growth, a cottony sticky invasion. But the plant was strong. I treated it with insecticidal soap. Foliage growth wasn't as robust this year, but she's really smiling now. I had to pinch out a few flowers that had gotten chewed in the bud. She's beginning to outgrow her clay pot, I should divide her this summer.

Her lily-0f-the-valley/lilac scent arises with the morning sun.