The play was Mark Twain's “The Gilded Age,” an adaptation of a novel by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. It may seem an odd choice for a high school production in the middle of the Great Depression, but it spoke to the hope of all Americans, and especially second generation Italo-Americans like Eddie, who dreamed the great American dream of striking it rich.
The attitude was summed up in what was perhaps the play's most famous line, delivered by the character Eddie portrayed, Colonel Sellers, as he promoted his Oriental Optical Eye-water: "There is millions in it." On further reflection, the play may not have been as surprising a choice as it first seems. The actual Gilded Age itself ended in 1893 with a great economic depression.
Sister Mary Annunciata, the hawk-faced director of the play, wanted incidental music during some of the more sumptuously-staged scenes, and so she auditioned student pianists. Eddie was nothing short of ecstatic when Esther Campobasso was chosen, thinking he'd have many chances to spend time with her at rehearsals.
Tete-a-tetes proved to be more difficult than he imagined, because the good nun was wise in the ways of teenagers. Eddie's not so subtle attentions to Esther weren't difficult to see, and Sister did all she could to keep her actor's focus on the play and not on the player. Sister wasn't entirely successful, however, simply because she was outnumbered.
Esther enjoyed the attentions of Eddie Case, and, in her own subtle way, encouraged him. Occasionally, during rehearsals, she would flash a rare, toothy smile at Eddie from her position at the offstage piano as he walked toward her. Invariably, her attention would cause him to forget a line or miss a cue, and Sister would bring him back to reality with a quick, harsh word, and he'd continue, red-faced but smug.
At one rehearsal, however, Eddie was more successful in his quest to court the object of his affection. His fellow student actors were all too aware of his affection for Esther. To them, it seemed he had only two obsessions – becoming a movie star was one; Esther was the other. Because they teased him about her so mercilessly, he enlisted them in a plot to help him have some time alone with her. They were happy to help, anticipating the pleasure of putting one over on their dictatorial director, and in the bargain, hoping to put an end to Eddie's constant prattling about Esther.
The plan was simple enough. One day, when they were rehearsing a ballroom scene, before Colonel Seller's entrance, the cast made a mess of the blocking that Sister Annunciata had so carefully planned. As they knew she would, she stopped the rehearsal, and from her third row seat in the auditorium, began her lecture on professionalism, concentration, obedience and competence. They'd heard it all before, but to help Eddie, they paid attention as if it were new information, even to the point of asking for clarification on some of Sister's finer points. It was probably the best acting the cast had ever accomplished, and it was for the benefit of the smallest audience they'd ever perform for.
While their performance was in progress on stage, Eddie simply sat down next to Esther on the piano bench, and told Esther he was going to marry her.
Her reaction was a total surprise, to both of them. She looked him straight in the eye without smiling, and kissed him. “I'll wait,” was all she said. He needed to brace himself. Unfortunately, forgetting where he was, Eddie leaned on the lower keys of the piano and created a dis-chord that stopped Sister Annunciata in mid-rant.
“What's going on up there?,” she barked, and Esther peeked out from the stage right wing and said,“Sorry, Sister. I slipped.”
©Copyright 2009 Frank LaPosta Visco
Next: In Part Seven, hell to pay.