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True Stories: I Fell For a Fictional Character in My Own Play
The brown-eyed guy who played him was, however, quite real.
by Eva Holland
I should have seen it coming.
I've always been a sucker for John Updike's early stories. You know the ones: "Friends From Philadelphia," "In Football Season." English class standards. They're safe, clean, classroom-friendly. But at the same time, they nail the experience of youth: that lingering innocence, the intensity of emotion, those rippling longings, and the warp-speed transitions between them all. Updike's characters in those early years — usually earnest, well-intentioned boys in Rust Belt towns — have always been the sorts of boys I wish I'd met in high school.
So I suppose, when I had the chance to adapt my favorite of those old stories, "A&P," for the college fringe festival I was coordinating, I shouldn't have been so surprised to find myself falling for my main character.
"A&P" is the title piece in a 1962 collection. It's a simple story about a teenage cashier, Sammy, who works at the local supermarket. One quiet afternoon, three girls walk in, wearing nothing but bathing suits.
The bulk of the text is filled by Sammy's descriptions of the girls as they wander the aisles, their feet "paddling along naked over our rubber-tile floor." The girls — one in particular — seem damn-near-perfect to the young cashier, so when I decided to adapt the piece for the stage, I knew no real live actress was ever going to fit the bill. Instead, I had Sammy and Stokesie, the other cashier, stand alone on the stage, looking out at the audience and following the imaginary girls' progress with steady play-by-play commentary. I hardly had to provide any dialogue myself; it's all vintage Updike, basically a seven-minute monologue about Sammy's dream woman.
Casting the girls would have been impossible, but casting Sammy was bad enough. I wanted someone who was soft-spoken, gentle, innocent — but who could carry the eroticism of the moment as well. I needed someone who could express the keenness of adolescent lust, while still seeming pure. After an endless series of auditions with a string of talented guys, none of whom felt quite right, I finally thought of Adam.
Adam was not an actor. He was a freshman, the star of the rugby team, and I knew him only as a casual drinking acquaintance. But he had a gentleness to him, and a pair of enormous, soft brown eyes. I might have found him a little effeminate, for my taste, if I hadn't seen him coming off the rugby pitch covered in mud and blood more often than not. He came across as sensitive but masculine, boy-next-door with just a hint of trouble. Kind of a Mark Ruffalo type — tough but lovable.
One afternoon I climbed several flights of stairs to his dorm room, script in hand, for an impromptu audition. And he nailed it. "There was one of them," he read from the early part of the story, "the tallest one, that I noticed first. She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two peeking out from behind her and making their shoulders round." Adam read the lines with a half-smile, a bemused, wondering tone, and just the right amount of longing: "She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on those long white prima donna legs." He drew out the vowels on "long" and "white," and twisted the word "legs" with satisfaction. I was sold.
Since the other two actors had just a handful of lines between them, we only rehearsed as a group every couple of days. Instead, most times, it was just Adam and me. We'd sit in his dorm room with the winter sun streaming in, facing each other on hard wooden chairs in that tiny space, and he'd read Updike's perfect phrases, over and over again, looking into my eyes the whole time.