Dramatic Dialogue

“Of course, this is no surprise to us,” Thomas Lane said to his daughter
Peggy, who perched tensely on the edge of a kitchen stool. “We could
hardly have helped knowing that you’ve wanted to be an actress since you
were out of your cradle. It’s just that decisions like this can’t be
made quickly.”

“But, Dad!” Peggy almost wailed. “You just finished saying yourself that
I’ve been thinking about this and wanting it for years! You can’t follow
that by calling it a quick decision!” She turned to her mother, her
hazel eyes flashing under a mass of dark chestnut curls. “Mother, you
understand, don’t you?”

Mrs. Lane smiled gently and placed her soft white hand on her daughter’s
lean brown one. “Of course I understand, Margaret, and so does your
father. We both want to do what’s best for you, not to stand in your
way. The only question is whether the time is right, or if you should
wait longer.”

“Wait! Mother—Dad—I’m years behind already! The theater is full of
beginners a year and even two years younger than I am, and girls of my
age have lots of acting credits already. Besides, what is there to wait
for?”

Peggy’s father put down his coffee cup and leaned back in the kitchen
chair until it tilted on two legs against the wall behind him. He took
his time before answering. When he finally spoke, his voice was warm and
slow.

“Peg, I don’t want to hold up your career. I don’t have any objections
to your wanting to act. I think—judging from the plays I’ve seen you in
at high school and college—that you have a real talent. But I thought
that if you would go on with college for three more years and get your
degree, you would gain so much worth-while knowledge that you’d use and
enjoy for the rest of your life—”

“But not acting knowledge!” Peggy cried.

“There’s more to life than that,” her father put in. “There’s history
and literature and foreign languages and mathematics and sciences and
music and art and philosophy and a lot more—all of them fascinating and
all important.”

“None of them is as fascinating as acting to me,” Peggy replied, “and
none of them is nearly as important to my life.”

Mrs. Lane nodded. “Of course, dear. I know just how you feel about it,”
she said. “I would have answered just the same way when I was your age,
except that for me it was singing instead of acting. But—” and here her
pleasant face betrayed a trace of sadness—“but I was never able to be a
singer. I guess I wasn’t quite good enough or else I didn’t really want
it hard enough—to go on with all the study and practice it needed.”

She paused and looked thoughtfully at her daughter’s intense expression,
then took a deep breath before going on.

“What you must realize, Margaret, is that you may not quite make the
grade. We think you’re wonderful, but the theater is full of young girls
whose parents thought they were the most talented things alive; girls
who won all kinds of applause in high-school and college plays; girls
who have everything except luck. You may be one of these girls, and if
you are, we want you to be prepared for it. We want you to have
something to fall back on, just in case you ever need it.”

Mr. Lane, seeing Peggy’s hurt look, was quick to step in with
reassurance. “We don’t think you’re going to fail, Peg. We have every
confidence in you and your talents. I don’t see how you could miss being
the biggest success ever—but I’m your father, not a Broadway critic or a
play producer, and I could be wrong. And if I am wrong, I don’t want you
to be hurt. All I ask is that you finish college and get a teacher’s
certificate so that you can always find useful work if you have to. Then
you can try your luck in the theater. Doesn’t that make sense?”

Peggy stared at the faded linoleum on the floor for a few moments before
answering. Then, looking first at her mother and then at her father, she
replied firmly, “No, it doesn’t! It might make sense if we were talking
about anything else but acting, but we’re not. If I’m ever going to try,
I’ll have a better chance now than I will in three years. But I can see
your point of view, Dad, and I’ll tell you what—I’ll make a bargain with
you.”

“What sort of bargain, Peg?” her father asked curiously.

“If you let me go to New York now, and if I can get into a good drama
school there, I’ll study and try to find acting jobs at the same time.
That way I’ll still be going to school and I’ll be giving myself a
chance. And if I’m not started in a career in one year, I’ll go back to
college and get my teacher’s certificate before I try the theater again.
How does that sound to you?”

“It sounds fair enough,” Tom Lane admitted, “but are you so confident
that you’ll see results in one year? After all, some of our top stars
worked many times that long before getting any recognition.”

“I don’t expect recognition in one year, Dad,” Peggy said. “I’m not that
conceited or that silly. All I hope is that I’ll be able to get a part
in that time, and maybe be able to make a living out of acting. And
that’s probably asking too much. If I have to, I’ll make a living at
something else, maybe working in an office or something, while I wait
for parts. What I want to prove in this year is that I can act. If I
can’t, I’ll come home.”

“It seems to me, Tom, that Margaret has a pretty good idea of what she’s
doing,” Mrs. Lane said. “She sounds sensible and practical. If she were
all starry-eyed and expected to see her name in lights in a few weeks,
I’d vote against her going, but I’m beginning to think that maybe she’s
right about this being the best time.”

“Oh, Mother!” Peggy shouted, jumping down from the stool and throwing
her arms about her mother’s neck. “I knew you’d understand! And you
understand too, don’t you, Dad?” she appealed.

Her father replied in little puffs as he drew on his pipe to get it
started. “I … never said … I didn’t … understand you … did I?”
His pipe satisfactorily sending up thick clouds of fragrant smoke, he
took it out of his mouth before continuing more evenly.

“Peg, your mother and I are cautious only because we love you so much
and want what’s going to make you happy. At the same time, we want to
spare you any unnecessary unhappiness along the way. Remember, I’m not a
complete stranger to show business. Before I came out here to Rockport
to edit the _Eagle_, I worked as a reporter on one of the best papers in
New York. I saw a lot … I met a lot of actors and actresses … and I
know how hard the city often was for them. But I don’t want to protect
you from life. That’s no good either. Just let me think about it a
little longer and let me talk to your mother some more.”

Mrs. Lane patted Peggy’s arm and said, “We won’t keep you in suspense
long, dear. Why don’t you go out for a walk for a while and let us go
over the situation quietly? We’ll decide before bedtime.”

Peggy nodded silently and walked to the kitchen door, where she paused
to say, “I’m just going out to the barn to see if Socks is all right for
the night. Then maybe I’ll go down to Jean’s for a while.”

As she stepped out into the soft summer dusk she turned to look back
just in time to see her mother throw her a comically exaggerated wink of
assurance. Feeling much better, Peggy shut the screen door behind her
and started for the barn.

Ever since she had been a little girl, the barn had been Peggy’s
favorite place to go to be by herself and think. Its musty but clean
scent of straw and horses and leather made her feel calm and alive.
Breathing in its odor gratefully, she walked into the half-dark to
Socks’s stall. As the little bay horse heard her coming, she stamped one
foot and softly whinnied a greeting. Peggy stopped first at the bag that
hung on the wall among the bridles and halters and took out a lump of
sugar as a present. Then, after stroking Socks’s silky nose, she held
out her palm with the sugar cube. Socks took it eagerly and pushed her
nose against Peggy’s hand in appreciation.

As Peggy mixed some oats and barley for her pet and checked to see that
there was enough straw in the stall, she thought about her life in
Rockport and the new life that she might soon be going to.

Rockport, Wisconsin, was a fine place, as pretty a small town as any
girl could ask to grow up in. And not too small, either, Peggy thought.
Its 16,500 people supported good schools, an excellent library, and two
good movie houses. What’s more, the Rockport Community College attracted
theater groups and concert artists, so that life in the town had always
been stimulating. And of course, all of this was in addition to the
usual growing-up pleasures of swimming and sailing, movie dates, and
formal dances—everything that a girl could want.

Peggy had lived all her life here, knew every tree-shaded street, every
country road, field, lake, and stream. All of her friends were here,
friends she had known since her earliest baby days. It would be hard to
leave them, she knew, but there was no doubt in her mind that she was
going to do so. If not now, then as soon as she possibly could.

It was not any dissatisfaction with her life, her friends, or her home
that made Peggy want to leave Rockport. She was not running away from
anything, she reminded herself; she was running _to_ something.

To what? To the bright lights, speeding taxis, glittering towers of a
make-believe movie-set New York? Would it really be like that? Or would
it be something different, something like the dreary side-street world
of failure and defeat that she had also seen in movies?

Seeing the image of herself hungry and tired, going from office to
office looking for a part in a play, Peggy suddenly laughed aloud and
brought herself back to reality, to the warm barn smell and the big,
soft-eyed gaze of Socks. She threw her arm around the smooth bay neck
and laid her face next to the horse’s cheek.

“Socks,” she murmured, “I need some of your horse sense if I’m going to
go out on my own! We’ll go for a fast run in the morning and see if some
fresh air won’t clear my silly mind!”

With a final pat, she left the stall and the barn behind, stepping out
into the deepening dusk. It was still too early to go back to the house
to see if her parents had reached a decision about her future. Fighting
down an impulse to rush right into the kitchen to see how they were
coming along, Peggy continued down the driveway and turned left on the
slate sidewalk past the front porch of her family’s old farmhouse and
down the street toward Jean Wilson’s house at the end of the block.

As she walked by her own home, she noticed with a familiar tug at her
heart how the lilac bushes on the front lawn broke up the light from the
windows behind them into a pattern of leafy lace. For a moment, or maybe
a little more, she wondered why she wanted to leave this. What for? What
could ever be better?

Upstairs at the Wilsons’, Peggy found Jean swathed in bath towels,
washing her long, straight red hair, which was now white with lather and
piled up in a high, soapy knot.

“You just washed it yesterday!” Peggy said. “Are you doing it again—or
still?”

Jean grinned, her eyes shut tight against the soapsuds. “Again, I’m
afraid,” she answered. “Maybe it’s a nervous habit!”

“It’s a wonder you’re not bald, with all the rubbing you give your
hair,” Peggy said with a laugh.

“Well, if I do go bald, at least it will be with a clean scalp!” Jean
answered with a humorous crinkle of her freckled nose. Taking a deep
breath and puffing out her cheeks comically, she plunged her head into
the basin and rinsed off the soap with a shampoo hose. When she came up
at last, dripping-wet hair was tightly plastered to the back of her
head.

“There!” she announced. “Don’t I look beautiful?”

After a brisk rubdown with one towel, Jean rolled another dry towel
around her head like an Indian turban. Then, having wrapped herself in
an ancient, tattered, plaid bathrobe, she led Peggy out of the steamy
room and into her cozy, if somewhat cluttered, bedroom. When they had
made themselves comfortable on the pillow-strewn daybeds, Jean came
straight to the point.

“So the grand debate is still going on, is it? When do you think they’ll
make up their minds?” she asked.

“How do you know they haven’t decided anything yet?” Peggy said, in a
puzzled tone.

“Oh, that didn’t take much deduction, my dear Watson,” Jean laughed. “If
they had decided against the New York trip, your face would be as long
as Socks’s nose, and it’s not half that long. And if the answer was yes,
I wouldn’t have to wait to hear about it! You would have been flying
around the room and talking a mile a minute. So I figured that nothing
was decided yet.”

“You know, if I were as smart as you,” Peggy said thoughtfully, “I would
have figured out a way to convince Mother and Dad by now.”

“Oh, don’t feel bad about being dumb,” Jean said in mock tones of
comfort. “If I were as pretty and talented as you are, I wouldn’t need
brains, either!” With a hoot of laughter, she rolled quickly aside on
the couch to avoid the pillow that Peggy threw at her.

A short, breathless pillow fight followed, leaving the girls limp with
laughter and with Jean having to retie her towel turban. From her new
position, flat on the floor, Peggy looked up at her friend with a rueful
smile.

“You know, I sometimes think that we haven’t grown up at all!” she said.
“I can hardly blame my parents for thinking twice—and a lot more—before
treating me like an adult.”

“Nonsense!” Jean replied firmly. “Your parents know a lot better than to
confuse being stuffy with being grown-up and responsible. And, besides,
I know that they’re not the least bit worried about your being able to
take care of yourself. I heard them talking with my folks last night,
and they haven’t got a doubt in the world about you. But they know how
hard it can be to get a start as an actress, and they want to be sure
that you have a profession in case you don’t get a break in show
business.”

“I know,” Peggy answered. “We had a long talk about it this evening
after dinner.” Then she told her friend about the conversation and her
proposed “bargain” with her parents.

“They both seemed to think it was fair,” she concluded, “and when I went
out, they were talking it over. They promised me an answer by bedtime,
and I’m over here waiting until the jury comes in with its decision. You
know,” she said suddenly, sitting up on the floor and crossing her legs
under her, “I bet they wouldn’t hesitate a minute if you would only
change your mind and decide to come with me and try it too!”

After a moment’s thoughtful silence, Jean answered slowly, “No, Peg.
I’ve thought this all out before, and I know it would be as wrong for me
as it is right for you. I know we had a lot of fun in the dramatic
groups, and I guess I was pretty good as a comedienne in a couple of the
plays, but I know I haven’t got the real professional thing—and I know
that you have. In fact, the only professional talent I think I do have
for the theater is the ability to recognize talent when I see it—and to
recognize that it’s not there when it isn’t!”

“But, Jean,” Peggy protested, “you can handle comedy and character lines
as well as anyone I know!”

Jean nodded, accepting the compliment and seeming at the same time to
brush it off. “That doesn’t matter. You know even better than I that
there’s a lot more to being an actress—a successful one—than reading
lines well. There’s the ability to make the audience sit up and notice
you the minute you walk on, whether you have lines or not. And that’s
something you can’t learn; you either have it, or you don’t. It’s like
being double-jointed. I can make an audience laugh when I have good
lines, but you can make them look at you and respond to you and be with
you all the way, even with bad lines. That’s why you’re going to go to
New York and be an actress. And that’s why I’m not.”

“But, Jean—” Peggy began.

“No buts!” Jean cut in. “We’ve talked about this enough before, and I’m
not going to change my mind. I’m as sure about what I want as you are
about what you want. I’m going to finish college and get my certificate
as an English teacher.”

“And what about acting? Can you get it out of your mind as easily as all
that?” Peggy asked.

“That’s the dark and devious part of my plan,” Jean answered with a
mysterious laugh that ended in a comic witch’s cackle and an
unconvincing witch-look that was completely out of place on her round,
freckled face. “Once I get into a high school as an English teacher, I’m
going to try to teach a special course in the literature of the theater
and maybe another one in stagecraft. I’m going to work with the
high-school drama group and put on plays. That way, I’ll be in a spot
where I can use my special talent of recognizing talent. And that way,”
she added, becoming much more serious, “I have a chance really to do
something for the theater. If I can help and encourage one or two people
with real talent like yours, then I’ll feel that I’ve really done
something worth while.”

Peggy nodded silently, not trusting herself to speak for fear of saying
something foolishly sentimental, or even of crying. Her friend’s
earnestness about the importance of her work and her faith in Peggy’s
talent had touched her more than she could say.

The silence lasted what seemed a terribly long time, until Jean broke it
by suddenly jumping up and flinging a last pillow which she had been
hiding behind her back. Running out of the bedroom, she called, “Come
on! I’ll race you down to the kitchen for cocoa! By the time we’re
finished, it’ll be about time for your big Hour of Decision scene!”

It was nearly ten o’clock when Peggy finally felt that her parents had
had enough time to talk things out. Leaving the Wilson house, she walked
slowly despite her eagerness, trying in all fairness to give her mother
and father every minute she could. Reaching her home, she cut across the
lawn behind the lilac bushes, to the steps up to the broad porch that
fronted the house. As she climbed the steps, she heard her father’s
voice raised a little above its normal soft, deep tone, but she could
not make out the words.

Crossing the porch, she caught sight of him through the window. He was
speaking on the telephone, and now she caught his words.

“Fine. Yes…. Yes—I think we can. Very well, day after tomorrow, then.
That’s right—all three of us. And, May—it’ll be good to see you again,
after all these years! Good-by.”

As Peggy entered the room, her father put down the phone and turned to
Mrs. Lane. “Well, Betty,” he said, “it’s all set.”

“What’s all set, Dad?” Peggy said, breaking into a run to her father’s
side.

“Everything’s all set, Peg,” her father said with a grin. “And it’s set
just the way you wanted it! There’s not a man in the world who can hold
out against two determined women.” He leaned back against the fireplace
mantel, waiting for the explosion he felt sure was to follow his
announcement. But Peggy just stood, hardly moving a muscle. Then she
walked carefully, as if she were on the deck of a rolling ship, to the
big easy chair and slowly sat down.

“Well, for goodness’ sake!” her mother cried. “Where’s the enthusiasm?”

Peggy swallowed hard before answering. When her voice came, it sounded
strange, about two tones higher than usual. “I … I’m trying to be
sedate … and poised … and very grown-up,” she said. “But it’s not
easy. All I want to do is to—” and she jumped out of the chair—“to yell
_whoopee_!” She yelled at the top of her lungs.

After the kisses, the hugs, and the first excitement, Peggy and her
parents adjourned to the kitchen, the favorite household conference
room, for cookies and milk and more talk.

“Now, tell me, Dad,” Peggy asked, her mouth full of oatmeal cookies, no
longer “sedate” or “poised,” but her natural, bubbling self. “Who was
that on the phone, and where are the three of us going, and what’s all
set?”

“One thing at a time,” her father said. “To begin with, we decided
almost as soon as you left that we were going to let you go to New York
to try a year’s experience in the theater. But then we had to decide
just where you would live, and where you should study, and how much
money you would need, and a whole lot of other things. So I called New
York to talk to an old friend of mine who I felt would be able to give
us some help. Her name is May Berriman, and she’s spent all her life in
the theater. In fact, she was a very successful actress. Now she’s been
retired for some years, but I thought she might give us some good
advice.”

“And did she?” Peggy asked.

“We were luckier than I would have thought possible,” Mrs. Lane put in.
“It seems that May bought a big, old-fashioned town house and converted
it into a rooming house especially for young actresses. She always
wanted a house of her own with a garden in back, but felt it was foolish
for a woman living alone. This way, she can afford to run a big place
and at the same time not be alone. And best of all, she says she has a
room that you can have!”

“Oh, Mother! It sounds wonderful!” Peggy exulted. “I’ll be with other
girls my own age who are actresses, and living with an experienced
actress! I’ll bet she can teach me loads!”

“I’m sure she can,” her father said. “And so can the New York Dramatic
Academy.”

“Dad!” Peggy shouted, almost choking on a cooky. “Don’t tell me you’ve
managed to get me accepted there! That’s the best dramatic school in the
country! How—?”

“Don’t get too excited, Peg,” Mr. Lane interrupted. “You’re not accepted
anywhere yet, but May Berriman told me that the Academy is the best
place to study acting, and she said she would set up an audition for you
in two days. The term starts in a couple of weeks, so there isn’t much
time to lose.”

“Two days! Do you mean we’ll be going to New York day after tomorrow,
just like that?”

“Oh, no,” her mother answered calmly. “We’re going to New York tomorrow
on the first plane that we can get seats on. Your father doesn’t believe
in wasting time, once his mind is made up.”

“Tomorrow?” Peggy repeated, almost unable to believe what she had heard.
“What are we sitting here talking for, then? I’ve got a million things
to do! I’ve got to get packed … I’ve got to think of what to read for
the audition! I can study on the plane, I guess, but … oh! I’ll be
terrible in a reading unless I can have more time! Oh, Mother, what
parts will I do? Where’s the Shakespeare? Where’s—”

“Whoa!” Mr. Lane said, catching Peggy’s arm to prevent her from rushing
out of the kitchen. “Not now, young lady! We’ll pack in the morning,
talk about what you should read, and take an afternoon plane to New
York. But tonight, you’d better think of nothing more than getting to
bed. This is going to be a busy time for all of us.”

Reluctantly, Peggy agreed, recognizing the sense of what her father
said. She finished her milk and cookies, kissed her parents good night
and went upstairs to bed.

But it was one thing to go to bed and another to go to sleep.

Peggy lay on her back, staring at the ceiling and the patterns of light
and shade cast by the street lamp outside as it shone through the leaves
of the big maple tree. As she watched the shifting shadows, she reviewed
the roles she had played since her first time in a high-school play.
Which should she refresh herself on? Which ones would she do best? And
which ones were most suited to her now? She recognized that she had
grown and developed past some of the roles which had once seemed
perfectly suited to her talent and her appearance. But both had changed.
She was certainly not a mature actress yet, from any point of view, but
neither was she a schoolgirl. Her trim figure was well formed; her face
had lost the undefined, simple cuteness of the early teens, and had
gained character. She didn’t think she should read a young romantic part
like Juliet. Not that she couldn’t do it, but perhaps something sharper
was called for.

Perhaps Viola in _Twelfth Night_? Or perhaps not Shakespeare at all.
Maybe the people at the Academy would think she was too arty or too
pretentious? Maybe she should do something dramatic and full of stormy
emotion, like Blanche in _A Streetcar Named Desire_? Or, better for her
development and age, a light, brittle, comedy role…?

Nothing seemed quite right. Peggy’s thoughts shifted with the shadows
overhead. All the plays she had ever seen or read or acted in melted
together in a blur, until the characters from one seemed to be talking
with the characters from another and moving about in an enormous set
made of pieces from two or three different plays. More actors kept
coming on in a fantastic assortment of costumes until the stage was
full. Then the stage lights dimmed, the actors joined hands across the
stage to bow, the curtain slowly descended, the lights went out—and
Peggy was fast asleep.