Of Chekhov, Home, Kindness and Friendship

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There are very few things that make me happier than finding a way to combine my passion for theatre with my love for traveling. Except maybe when the play I intend to see happens to star someone I admire very much and always wanted to see in person. A huge advantage of these kinds of fangirl adventures is that they are usually planned very early and pretty much set in stone. Convention appearances are often scheduled pretty close to the date of the event (at least for those of us who have to come up with the money for overseas flights) and are always tentative, as actors may have to cancel at short notice due to professional commitments.

Theatres plan a lot further ahead, making it much easier to arrange for days off, coordinate dates with other fans, and save up for a trip. That’s what I did when I learned that Mary McDonnell would appear in a production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in Philadelphia. Okay, so the theatre wasn’t exactly in Philadelphia, but that didn’t seem to be relevant at the time.

That trip was be the first since London 2005 that I would go on without firm plans to meet with someone I already knew. Well, not really, but that’s another story. I knew that an Australian fandom friend was planning to see the play on the same day I did, and we decided to meet up.  Slowly, others checked in, saying they would be there at the same time. All that time, Jen, my Texan twin, was cursing the fact that she couldn’t get any time off work to make the trip. That is, until her boss got tired of her sad face and let her have a long weekend – the same one I was going to spend in Philadelphia. Let’s say there was a lot of excitement about finally meeting each other.

I was almost as excited about my visit to New York City as I was about the play. There is something about that place that captured my heart the very first time I got there. Being able to come home to it again after two years felt so very good, and getting to be there without the pressure of having to play tourist guide for a traveling companion was extremely relaxing. A lot of walking was done in those first few days, resulting in what might possibly have been the world’s largest blister.

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One of my room mates at the hostel was a sweet Russian girl who had a two day layover in New York and didn’t have any idea what she could do. In addition to that, she was a little scared of being out there all day, because it was very, very cold and she hadn’t packed for that kind of weather. As I had no specific plans other than walking around, I offered to take her on a tour. We ended up walking pretty much all over Manhattan.

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The next day, I took the bus to Philadelphia. At first, I had planned to stay in a hostel in Philadelphia’s Old Town for all four nights, but when Jen decided to come, she booked a room in a hotel in Malvern and offered to share it, leaving only the first two nights for me to stay in the hostel.

Malvern, a small town a little outside Philadelphia, was where I had to be to see the play. Getting there without a car was a bit of a problem, especially when you rely on Google maps. That first trip there was quite an adventure and only had a happy ending because of several very kind people. From the guy who, when asked for directions, offered to give me a ride to the theatre, to the sweet couple who offered to take me back to the station after the play, to the kind guy who paid for my coffee for no other reason than it having been my first visit to a Wawa, to the guy at the hostel who gave me the 30 day SEPTA pass he didn’t need anymore, I encountered nothing but kindness and generosity that day.

That first night, it took a while for me to truly arrive at the theatre and get my my mind focused on what was about to happen. I would see Mary McDonnell on stage! By the time the play began all worries were forgotten for the moment. I think it is no secret that stage and screen acting are two very different things, and seeing someone perform in a film or on TV does in no way prepare you for experiencing them live on stage. That was definitely true for Mary. She has an amazing presence on screen, but the moment she walked onto that stage, she took over the entire room. Her energy is breathtaking.

The production was fantastic. Stage, costumes, lighting and music were beautiful and set the perfect mood. I had read the play before and thought it rather humorous, despite the tragic topic, and I was very happy to see this humor reflected in the production. And yet there were many moments when I was not able to stop the tears. It was a great production with so many fantastic actors and I wish I lived close enough to see more plays at this charming little theater.

What I love most about being able to see a play more than once is the subtle differences that can be spotted from one performance to another. Mostly it is about energy, which is already enough to change the entire experience. Sometimes it is also possible to make out small changes or slip-ups, or even the odd costume failure. All of this is usually unnoticeable to people who see the play for the first time.

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Production photos © People’s Light and Theater

On the three nights I saw the play, I got to experience three unique performances, mostly because of subtle changes in individual actor’s energy. On the second night, there was also a slight wardrobe mishap if I was not completely mistaken. At one point, a certain leading lady’s underskirt seemed to develop a life of its own, resulting in a little discrete fumbling to secure the misbehaving item until the end of the scene. The next day, there was a certain amount of suspicion towards that underskirt, as hands kept checking its status.

It takes a lot of skill and nerves to get through a problem like that without anyone noticing that there is something wrong and it usually leaves you a little paranoid for quite a while. (Let’s just say that it took me a long time to regain my trust in on-stage door handles.)

Getting to see this great production and having the pleasure of seeing Mary McDonnell on stage was no doubt amazing and it ranks at the very top of my list of fangirl adventures. What made it even more special was meeting so many wonderful ladies, some of whom I consider close friends now. From identifying a fellow fangirl by her Captain Raydor glasses to stacking 6 fangirls into a car to shopping trips, bacon breakfast and exploring Philadelphia to the best tip for a dinner location in history, it was a perfect experience.

Okay, best tip for a dinner location? Well, yeah. Malvern is small and not exactly buzzing after 10pm. As we were looking for some place to get together for a drink and a bite to eat after the Friday performance, we asked the helpful receptionist at our hotel and he sent us to a very nice place with good food. It also happened to be the place where Mary McDonnell went for a drink with Major Crimes guest star Tom Berenger whom we had spotted at the theater earlier.

Despite what people might say about crazy fans and their tendency to harass the people they admire, we at least tried to appear as if we could behave. As much as we all would have liked to walk up to the bar and tell Mary how much we had enjoyed the play and her performance, we did not think it appropriate to bother her. It was awesome enough to sit there and catch the odd glance. Besides, we had so much fun chatting and being silly that it was not too difficult to resist the temptation to be a nuisance.

Sadly, even the most epic of fangirl meetings must come to an end eventually and it usually does so at an airport. As I said goodbye to our Texan delegation (the Twin and our roomie/driver), the prospect of another few days in New York City was not much of a consolation. At that point, I did not know that it would only be a few months until we would meet again.

The memories of this weekend, the kindness of complete strangers, and the wonderful friendships that began in Malvern will be with me for a very long time. They made my life richer and fill me with gratitude every day.

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