Lay On, Macduff!
By Patrick F. Cannon
Several days ago, I resumed my theatrical career by playing both Duncan and Macduff in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the “Scottish Play” as superstitious actors call it to avoid the curse associated with actually naming it. The cast also included my wife Jeanette; daughter Beth and son-in-law Boyd; his sister Cathy, and brother Bart and wife Lisa; their children, Riley and Rachel and niece Hannah. Everyone played multiple parts; in addition to Duncan and Macduff, I was also the first murderer (of three, there being copious amounts of blood in the play).
The venue was not the Old Globe or Stratford-Upon-Avon, but on various laptops and tablets, courtesy of Zoom. Actors joined from Seattle, the Chicago area, Minneapolis, and Madison, Wisconsin. I have to confess we didn’t do the play as the Bard had written it, but a somewhat abridged 45-minute version. Nevertheless, everyone involved played their roles with great spirit; my own performance received high praise from my dear wife. Alas, when the doomed Macbeth yells “lay on Macduff” during the climactic battle, I was unable to do so, being in another room.
My theatrical career actually goes back many years. I believe I was in the fourth grade when I appeared in a production of The Wizard of Oz. It was a joint effort of Chicago’s Aquinas High School for Girls and the adjoining St. Philip Neri grammar school, both run by Dominican nuns. The main protagonists came from the high school, but I was given an important supporting role – heroine Dorothy’s faithful mutt, Toto. I was very serious about learning my lines, and declaiming them when cued. They varied based on the situation – either “woof woof” or “arf arf.” According to my parents, I handled both with aplomb.
It would be 30 more years before I almost trod the boards again. The company I was then working for had transferred the management staff from Chicago to its plant in Lake Mills, Iowa, a town of about 2,000 souls with limited housing choices. All of us chose to settle 20 miles to the north in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a comparative metropolis of 20,000. Built around a lake, Albert Leas was not without its charms, but had limited cultural attractions; one had to drive about 100 miles north to what they called the “Cities,” namely Minneapolis and St. Paul, for professional entertainment.
The one exception was the Albert Lea Community Theatre, which typically did three productions a year, including one musical. My first wife, Mary, partly to stave off boredom, had auditioned for a production of Guys and Dolls. She got a part in the chorus, which required both singing and dancing. I was eventually dragooned into doing some publicity work for them, then began doing the programs. The leader, and lead actor, was a Scottish doctor who had a long history of amateur theatricals, including in nearby Rochester, where he had been associated with the Mayo Clinic.
The cast parties were legendary, and during one, after having had a few drinks, I agreed to audition for a part in a coming production of Wait Until Dark. Originally a Broadway play starring Lee Remick and Robert Duvall as blind heroine and villain, it was later adapted as a movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin. It also included a husband, who appears at the beginning and end. In the movie, it was played by Richard Crenna. I was given this role.
In the opening act, I left on a business trip. I won’t go into the plot, except to say it involved a doll filled with heroin, which the husband had brought home not knowing what it contained; and the efforts of the bad guys to retrieve it. In the end, the wife prevails. The husband – me – returns home and finds that things had gotten messy in his absence, but that his plucky wife had won the day, despite being blind.
I had been learning my lines when another drama unfolded. My boss, the CEO, had hatched a plot to take over the company. I won’t go into the details, except to say that the palace coup failed and we were all fired. Finding a job back in Chicago seemed more important than my theatrical career, so I dropped out. Rehearsals hadn’t actually started, so it was no problem to replace me.
In the intervening years, I have done a good deal of public speaking, which requires a kind of acting, but it was another 40 years until my acting career resumed. At this rate, my next role might have to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon