“You—she—the priestess—is like a prune: a long, thin, prune whose juice has been sucked out and all the sweetness is gone. Perhaps she is more like a raisin; formerly a tight, tart grape, whose juice has been sucked out and any sweetness that might have existed is completely gone. Yes, like a raisin. You see? Tight, sour, dry. Tart. She could be your age, but she's assuredly old before her time. We'll try it when we come to it. Let's go back.”
The aged actor spouted lines interspersed with direction and character study. His analogies grew with each sentence. Every year for the last thirty, this man played the same role in the same adaptation of the same story which he also directed. No longer did he need the wig and makeup he once religiously donned, for Nature had provided the perfect mask by this time.
Jacob Goldsmith was revered in the region, humble as he was, as one of the greatest dramatists in the area. His annual presentation of A Miser's Miracle was the social event of the year for many. They were drawn by the amazing scenes, the fabulous performances, and magical effects that they felt rivaled those of hallowed Broadway, a mere fifty miles away. For this was not a professional theatre by any stretch; the seats were held together with duct tape and old gauze, and the bare wall showed through where paint had chipped away. Here was a theatre that existed solely for the love of theatre and not the love of money.
For thirty years the master studied these characters, now firmly rooted, ubiquitous in his mind, though every year he discovered something new about each, and their relations to his own character might change as did his understanding. He retold the old American story of the miser who lives by himself and shuns society, refusing to make charity or embrace change. One evening he awakens to find his bed floating above the earth, transported to some foreign land. He meets people along the way who remind him of himself, and of his former youth; it opens his heart. When he returns to his bedchamber, he is a new man, and he opens his coffers to help the poor and needy and throws his arms gratefully around his fellow man.
Jacob sneered and the beggar children approached him. “This is America,” he growled in his miser voice, pointing a gnarled finger. “Let them work for their own money.”
Young, aspiring actors who found out about this theatre and this production soon wanted to be involved. There was something in the wisdom of Jacob Goldsmith that suited him to mentorship. Not to mention the children who involved themselves at the behest of their parents came away with something much greater than that with which they started. By this time, there were over a hundred children who had been involved in Miracle, and some were grown up and had children who got involved as well. The legacies abounded, and it did not go unnoticed by Jacob, who kept very careful records in his filing cabinet of a brain.
“When you come at me, Charles,” Jacob said to a hulking young man, “I want you to think more about your own pain—his own pain. The spirit is in great torment. Obviously, you and I have experienced nothing like what this spirit has gone through and is going through, but I want you to substitute painful episodes in your own life and apply them here: the times you did wrong, the times you were helpless, the times you were sorrowful. Apply them all here and give me a great big cloud of pain, sadness. Fear.”
Charlie Campbell often sat back when he was off-stage and thought about Jacob's accomplishments. This was Charlie's third year, and he still felt he had so much to learn. He observed that Jacob seemed undaunted to revisit this material year in and year out; in fact, Jacob seemed to revel in it, taking the opportunity to actually direct something that meant the world to him. He wanted it to mean the world to everyone.
“I'm sorry, was that my cross? Did I miss it? Dreadful sorries. Let's go back.”
Jacob had been playing the old miser since he was twenty years old. When he hit thirty, he realized that he was too young to have understood the subtle nuances of the miser's character. He spent the first ten years simply yelling loudly, and gesticulating loudly, and generally being unbearable to watch after some time. Audiences still loved it; he was a good writer and a talented director. In that tenth year, he started over and rewrote the entire adaptation based on his new discoveries about the miser and the people he met on his journey. There was less yelling and more glaring, more staring, more sneering. “Audiences eat it up,” as Jacob would often say.
The eager apprentice quickly turned into the stingy businessman, then withered into the shriveled hermit, becoming the old miser. He relived his past in various scenes, much like going through an old photo album where the dust always stirs with each turned page. “May you learn that love is the only thing in life worth having,” said the apprentice's kind, jovial master. It was a refrain from something else, something Jacob heard before in some other story, some other play. But he used it. “Why create something new when the old thing does a better job?” he said.
When asked about the young dowager who, some thought, showed a bit too much skin, Jacob would say, “It's something to warm a cold man's heart,” another of his aphorisms. (He knew a flash of flesh would keep some husbands and bachelors as regular customers, no doubt.) Also, he often and repeatedly drew obscure lines from countless other plays to toss into casual speech. “It's something you can always depend on,” he would say to whomever played Georgia, the maid, “you know, like the kindness of strangers.”
While Jacob always played the old miser, the character he dealt with most was that of the tormented spirit visitor; for, he would say, the spirit is the one who brings about the ultimate change in the miser. The spirit, hovering above the scene as if on his own cloud, pointed at the starving, huddled masses downstage, saying, “The poor exist to remind us to count our blessings, and if we have trouble counting that high, to give until it's easy.”
Some days in rehearsal, Jacob stood center stage rubbing his eyes, his blue button-down shirt puffed out in the back and his shoulders hunched as he thought, or acted, whichever he was doing. Other times he walked around the house, across and back through each row with the miser's walking stick, shouting “Louder!” and “More connection! More feeling!” Watching the scenes, his scenes, unfold on that stage, he'd admonish a young girl, saying, “No, no. Am I embarrassing you? I hope so. Now, give the boy a real hug, my dear. He's not diseased, you know.” And thus the play would come together, take form and shape, grow as tall as giants, to tower above the audience when the curtain rose.
Each performance, year after constant year, was a triumph. Full houses wept, laughed, and clapped, cheering loudly when Jacob took his grateful bow. “It's for the audience,” he would say to those cast members missing their curtain call manners. “It's for the audience, not the ego.”
One year during rehearsals, Jacob developed a nasty cough which persisted despite medication and hot tea with lemon. He endeavored to carry a handkerchief with him for the run of the show, for he would not miss it—“even for six magic beans,” he said. It was one day during rehearsals the cough was especially bad. He sat on the bed and heaved greatly. A few cast members rushed to his side and rubbed his back, whispering their sympathies. One ran for a glass of water. Jacob signaled that he'd lay down, and others let him. The coughing subsided, but he held his torso tightly. After a moment of staring vaguely, as oft he would when inventing new direction or redeveloping a character, he instead said plainly, “Will someone take me up the hill?”
Most of the cast went with Jacob to the hospital up the hill from the theatre. Doctors were puzzled, and nurses could only assure them. Day by day his situation worsened. Then one day, with most of the cast and some from past productions gathered around him, he leaned back on his pillow. “Now I, too, shall truly float away in my bed to distant lands,” he said. And then, like all the distinguished throughout time, he faded away.
And the lights went to black.