TAMPA — The cast members in most every stage show have a moment of sheer panic at some point during rehearsals, when the light at the end of the tunnel starts to look like an oncoming train. For those in Lovable, it came during the first full run-through and technical rehearsal of the play on a Saturday afternoon earlier this month. The opening performance was just two days away. • "I had the feeling I was on the Titanic,'' Shirley Lewenthal said. • "And the lifeboats had left,'' added Elizabeth Jeffress, and the two women, both in their 80s, laughed at the memory of that long, tedious afternoon, now safely behind them. • Lovable, loosely adapted from an Oscar Wilde fable, was an intergenerational production, with the cast made up of elderly women — residents of the University Village retirement center in north Tampa — and fourth-graders from Philip Shore Magnet School of the Arts in Tampa. • The problems during the run-through were numerous. Several of the kids who had key roles were not there, and the ones who were said their lines too quickly or couldn't remember them.
They spoke so softly that they were virtually inaudible much of the time. Some of the women also couldn't be heard in the center's auditorium, which has only a rudimentary sound system.
"Shirley, it's really hard to hear you. Can you give it a little more oomph?'' director Jean Calandra said to Lewenthal, who was playing a classroom teacher in one scene.
The process that led to Lovable was the brainchild of Calandra, who designed an outreach program called Time Tapestries for the Patel Conservatory, where she is curriculum coordinator and teaches acting. Held at University Village since 2006, the program is intended to give seniors an opportunity to create an original theater piece that incorporates their writing and personal stories and then to put it on with children from the community.
"The idea is for kids and old people to interact with each other and find out what they have in common,'' Calandra, 64, says.
Over about eight months, the women met regularly — sometimes weekly — with Calandra to develop the work. They also met with the children, but less often and less reliably. Philip Shore and its students had other priorities, such as getting ready for the all-important FCAT in March, right about the time Lovable started to need them most.
"It's such a joy to work with the children, and yet their schedule made things difficult,'' cast member Mary Sterling said.
As opening night loomed, with a full house expected in the University Village auditorium, and then a few days later a second performance at the Patel Conservatory theater in downtown Tampa, the women were on edge.
"Today we try to tame the monster,'' Calandra told them at the start of the run-through. "You guys just have to trust that this will work out.''
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Lovable was drawn from a Wilde story called The Selfish Giant that Calandra handed out to the women last fall. It's about a giant with a lovely garden, which he walls off to keep children from playing in. Eventually, though, he has a change of heart through his encounter with a boy and tears down the wall and welcomes the children in. It's a beguiling little tale that has inspired some interesting adaptations, including a children's ballet and an animated short film nominated for an Academy Award in 1972.
Many of the women found parallels between Wilde's giant and some residents of University Village, which has a population of about 500 seniors, living in apartments in the complex a few blocks from the University of South Florida campus. Isolation can be a problem, despite the array of activities offered to residents, from tai chi and meditation to bingo and bridge.
"People can be as busy as they want to be, or as isolated as they want to be. And we have both,'' said Pauline Evans, 73, who has lived at the center for four years. "Some people are very private, never come out of their apartments, have their meals sent in. Whether it's for health reasons, or whether they're not feeling energetic enough to put on their party face and come down, they stay in their rooms.''
Several months into the project, the women decided that the central character of their production would be a writer who felt like an outcast from society for much of her life. "It's very different from The Selfish Giant, but the premise is about being a person who is a little different and sometimes people make fun of her or don't understand her,'' Evans said.
At a Time Tapestries meeting last November, about a dozen women were involved in the project. But by the end, the cast was down to seven, and one of them had to drop out after the first performance because of an adverse reaction she had to some medication.
"It's very difficult to work with this age group,'' said Sterling, 84, member of a USO song-and-dance troupe during World War II and a University Village resident for 14 years. "People are busy with doctor appointments, hospitals, travel plans. It was hard to get everybody together. People have a way of getting sick and old and even dying.''
The majority of University Village residents are women, and Time Tapestries has had little involvement by men, not unheard of when it comes to the arts. "The men will tell you a million stories at the dinner table, but they don't want to do it in public,'' said Jeffress, 86, a retired psychiatrist.
The final script for Lovable was a series of episodes that ranged from memories of classroom pranks involving chalk dust on the seat of some picked-upon child's pants to a spoof of the hugely popular bingo games at University Village. In the scene that most closely recalled The Selfish Giant, Sterling played a crabby old lady on a peach farm whose standoffish attitude toward children was transformed through her relationship with a neglected boy.
All the women wrote essays or stories or poetry for the project, but turning it all into a workable script was up to the director. "We all do a lot of writing, and then Jean has to put it together by cutting about 75 percent of it,'' Sterling said.
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Joan Strauman, 73, was the veteran trouper of the group, because she has been onstage a good part of her life, as a dancer and actor in Tampa. She has scrapbooks full of photos and press clips chronicling productions she has been in, from Sweet Charity to Tartuffe to a TV commercial for Scotty's hardware stores.
One of her photos is from The Swing, an Edward Bond play she performed in at USF in the 1980s that was directed by none other than Calandra. "I hadn't kept in touch with Jean,'' Strauman said. "So when I came here to live and they asked me if I knew this woman who ran Time Tapestries, I said, 'Know her? I was directed by her in a play!' ''
Two years ago, Strauman, who was a middle school librarian in Tampa for 30 years, had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. Rehabilitation improved her condition, but she realized that she could no longer remain in her house on Linebaugh Avenue. She managed to sell it in two days, moved to University Village and threw herself into life there.
"Every day I have something scheduled,'' she said. "But it's all up to me to get involved. I just tend to be an optimistic person. I'm out there trying to improve myself. And it's the same with this play. Whatever your passions are, follow them.''
Strauman played Opal Snow, the writer at the center of Lovable, and her performance — and the rest of the show — turned out great in the end. The kids were delightfully cute and even managed to project their lines pretty well. The women — dressed all in black, except for colorful hats and scarves — spoke the poetry and monologues they had written with real style. And the audiences of fellow residents at University Village and mainly family and friends at Patel clearly enjoyed it all.
"I just feel blessed that I'm still able to get up on that stage,'' Strauman said. "It's the same here as in any play I've been in. As actors, we are those people. You're not just up there spouting out lines. You become that character and let the feeling come out.''
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He writes for Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.