So this past Saturday night was almost indescribable in its cumulative weirdness. But try to describe it I will. I apologize if I impugn any individuals I don’t mean to impugn in the course of relating this story; I really will try to describe only what transpired. But I’m sure some editorial commentary will slip in reflecting my bewilderment about certain specific circumstances. Restraint may end up being a vain hope before I am done.
I had made reservations for 6:30pm at the Hanover Tavern and Pub. My wife and I had promised to take my mom out to a show for nearly 9 months running and finally the stars aligned to make it happen. But when those stars align, sometimes it can be dangerous.
If you remember, it was kind of a sloppy, rainy night Saturday. We live south of the river, my mom lives in the west end and the Tavern is up near Ashland. As so often happens in Richmond, the weather intimidated some drivers so completely that they insisted on driving 10 miles per hour below the speed limit along lengthy two-lane rural roads. The cumulative effect of this over the course of our travels resulted in us arriving 10 minutes late for our reservation.
When we informed the maitre’d, she exclaimed, “Wow, you all are pushin’ it!” She handed us off to a hostess who in turn exclaimed incredulously, “You all are here for theater?!?!” She took us up to our table and instructed us, “Be SURE and tell your server you are here for theater.” Apparently, arriving only 80 minutes before the show was the cause for considerable distress among the waitstaff. I should say that I know that their intentions were good and their concern was in a way admirable. But the effect of their alarm was to make us feel in a way chastised and a bit defensive.
The very nice waitress took our drink order and then disappeared for 10 minutes. When she came back, she looked at the menus we had been dutifully studying and told us they were the wrong ones. She gave us the “theater” menus and then disappeared for another 10 minutes. When we finally ordered, taking note of the rampant anxiety about the time, we said that we are happy to take our dessert during intermission. I should note that, at this time, still being only barely past 7pm, we aren’t really worried. But still, better safe than sorry, right?
Repeatedly during the ensuing 30 minutes, we catch snippets of the waitstaff at the wait-station immediately behind us in conversation, saying “I don’t think they are going to make it.” “It’s going to be really close with them.” Etc. Etc. We are served our salads around 7:10 and our entrees by 7:20ish (“we don’t mean to rush you”) and the food is fantastic. We have a second glass of wine. All seems to be going well until we see our waitress suddenly rushing past us and then down the stairs in a near-panic. We look back at the wait-station and our hostess is coughing and gagging and generally in a bad way. We ask “are you OK?” She shakes her head “No.” We are confused and consider whether we should call 911. The waitress returns saying, “She’s gone.” The hostess is having an asthma attack and the waitress was trying to find the maitre-d to borrow an inhaler from her. The maitre-d has left for the night. The hostess puts her head in a freezer for several minutes. We hold tight, cell phones at the ready as she slowly recovers, which she does. Whew!
We finish our entrees and have coffee and it’s 7:45pm. The waitress is delightful. We’ve shared this tense situation and I think we all feel closer. The waitress says, “we could bring you your dessert now if you want.” No, we’ll stick with the original plan.
We settle up and head down to the theater. We’re in the center of the house, about 4 rows up, nice seats. After a few minutes, the lights start to go down. The recorded curtain speech. The buzz of conversation starts to fade. Except right over my right shoulder, one couple continues to talk…and loudly. “WELL, I DON’T KNOW. IT SOUNDS LIKE IT COULD BE FUNNY.” “I GUESS WE’LL SEE.” “WE CAN ALWAYS LEAVE IF WE DON’T LIKE IT.”
The play starts. Jonathan Spivey plays and sings with cheerful confidence. He starts his narration. The couple behind us has been quiet for maybe 5 minutes before they begin to comment. “HER NAME IS FLORENCE. I THINK THIS IS AFTER SHE’S DIED.” My wife and I both turn and give the couple “the look.” They are quiet for another stretch. We meet Florence / Debra. Eventually, she sings. “OH, THAT’S BAD. THAT’S REALLY BAD.” “HOW CAN SHE NOT KNOW SHE’S SO BAD?” Again, the look. The crowd is looser now because of the laughter, and it apparently doesn’t register. “SHE WOULD HAVE TO RENT A HALL FOR PEOPLE TO COME HEAR THAT.” “DO YOU THINK SHE’S GOING TO GET BETTER?” Finally, my wife leans back and assertively Shushes them.
We then get a nice little chunk of commentary-free action before, about 30 minutes into the show, a door at the very front of the house-right section – that is, in view of everybody else in the audience – opens and three people in wheelchairs slowly roll into the house. They creep forward slowly and I – and I expect a few dozen other people in the house – try mightily to maintain our focus on the action on the stage. There doesn’t seem to be anyone attending them. Then, the woman in the first wheelchair rolls that one inch too many and – as we all look on in horror – the front wheels of her chair slip over a small step and she is thrown forward out of the chair with the chair toppling over on top of her.
A gasp goes through the crowd. No one in the house-right section seems to know what’s going on. Finally, a man in the front of the center section walks across the stage to get to the woman. At this point, Debra – the unbelievably composed and consummate professional that she is – says, “I think we need to hold.” Chase comes out from backstage. No one seems to be attending these people. Chase and the center section guy are able to get the woman back in her chair. It’s still not clear if anyone came with the people in the wheelchairs to assist them. After a couple of minutes – that must have seemed like an eternity to Jonathan and Debra – the people in wheelchairs seem to be situated. Debra asks whether everyone is ok. There is no answer. Debra asks whether it is ok for the show to continue. There is no answer. Finally, my wife – and perhaps some others from the audience – yell out to Debra that everything seems to be OK. Demonstrating her skill and composure again, Debra says to Jonathan something to the effect of “let’s take it from bar 22 then shall we?” and they bravely and flawlessly pick back up again.
Well, as if this was not interesting enough already, in addition to the three people in wheelchairs, there is another man with the crowd of latecomers who seems to have some neurological disorder. A few minutes after the action starts up again, he starts making small noises and little gestures. He appears to be cold and at one point puts a shirt or jacket over his head. Later, he’ll get up from his seat and move to another empty seat at the end of his row. I’m aware of this because his actions are accompanied by noises and, with each one, I watch the heads of the people in the four rows in front of me all turn toward the house-right section.
Let me interject that there have been shows at the Empire I have gone to where differently-abled patrons and antsy children have been in attendance. In a big theater and amidst the sounds of a big musical, small distractions can be tuned out. In the intimacy of the Tavern’s theater, they are unavoidable.
The lights come up for the end of Act I and the woman sitting next to Holly says cheerfully, “Well, I guess that’s it!”
At intermission, we retire to the Pub for our desserts (incidentally – and this kind of feels like piling on but, in the interest of completeness, my mom’s dessert ends up not being what she ordered). Crème brule and Pecan Pie -- truly delicious and I would highly recommend them. A woman that is sitting two rows behind us thanks my wife for “shushing” the loud-talkers in the row between us. We see Joe Pabst and express our support and admiration for Debra. We hear later that, at some point during intermission, Chase falls down a flight of stairs, which is why he is limping when we see him at the end of the show.
We return to our seats for the second act and the loud talkers are at it. “WELL, I JUST DON’T SEE WHAT THEY ARE GOING TO DO WITH IT NOW.” “IT SEEMS LIKE SHE’S GOING TO KEEP SINGING THAT WAY; I THINK THAT’S GOING TO BE THE WHOLE JOKE.” We give them “the look” as the lights go down and that seems to settle them down.
The second act proceeds without significant incident except for the repeated grunts, peeps, and exclamations from house-right. There is a woman not in a wheelchair with them. The noise-maker moves next to her and starts poking her. Quiet moments on stage are interrupted by high-pitched “woo”s from house right. I focus as intently as I can on Debra and Jonathan.
The show progresses with much hilarity and appreciation from the audience. The concert at Carnegie Hall wows the crowd. Things move deliberately toward the moving, magnificent final scene. Debra comes out and begins to sing. Only about 3 bars into the song and already a tear is flowing down my wife’s cheek. The crowd is rapt – even our friends in house-right. And at about this point, the sound of about 10 hard candy wrappers all being removed at once starts to rise from the woman sitting next to my wife. She has a Styrofoam container in a plastic bag with (apparently) her leftovers from dinner. At this point – at the epic pinnacle of the entire show – she decides to check to make sure her food has not somehow escaped the container. She shuffles it back and forth in her lap, loudly and persistently. My blood pressure begins to rise to dangerous levels. After about a solid minute of this wretched, interminable noise, my wife grabs the woman’s arm, prepared to chastise her. The woman is apparently shocked by this sudden contact and freezes. Debra finishes her song. It is a beautiful moment – a transcendent moment – and all I am hearing is a horrid echo of a squeaky Styrofoam container.
Our standing ovation is immediate and fervent, if for no other reason to dispel some of the built up frustration of the entire night. We leave the theater and we walk off into the dreary night, with curses on our lips for the ungracious, the inept, the ignorant and the inconsiderate. I think many thoughts that I will be ashamed of later.