The Play's The Thing, Part 1

(by, 24 May 1997)

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Subject: The Play's The Thing

   Ms. Emerson sat down behind her desk and took a long, hard look at
   "You wanted to see me, Ms. Emerson ?" the girl said nervously.
   She has every reason to be nervous, Karen though to herself. The cast list
was supposed to have been posted yesterday- rehearsals would start tomorrow,
and nobody knew what was going on.
   Of course, it was just summer theatre. Even Karen, who'd taken the burden of
running the whole thing on her shoulders because that was what she thought
high school drama teachers were supposed to do, couldn't help but think that
   Not that she was exactly a drama teacher. It was true she'd attended Yale,
and gotten her masters from the drama school, but she'd been hired to teach
English, and the only reason she'd gotten the drama class was because Mr.
Yanik couldn't get it off his schedule fast enough.
   Then again, Yanik was more suited to being a critic than a dramaturg of any
   "Yes, Christine, I wanted to see you. I've delayed posting the cast list
because I need to speak with you first about something."
   "Me ?" Christine asked, wondering what was going on here. After the leaden
reading of the lead she'd given in auditions she knew she'd be lucky to get a
few lines in the opening act as Helene. She couldn't imagine why Ms. Emerson
would want to see her.
   "Well, Christine, this is a little embarrassing for me because I'm not sure
how to say it- I'd like to have you take upi the lead part in the play, but I
have one serious reservation-"
   "My voice, right ?" Christine said, frowning. "I know that it doesn't sound
very strong, but I really do know how to project-"
   "This isn't about your voice, Chrissy. It's, well, you don't smoke, do you
   Christine looked at Ms. Emerson strangely for a moment and then realised why
she was asking. Having not expected to get the lead, she'd concentrated on
learning some of the smaller parts. Tara Luder, the lead, smoked throughout
the play. It was an integral part of her character.
   "I'm sure I can fake it," Christine said, still nervous. Now that the
opportunity seemed to be opening itself up she wasn't sure that she really
wanted it.
   "Faking it is not going to be good enough. That's why I wanted to see you."
   "But even if I did smoke, Ms. Emerson, I can't- I mean, not here in Oakwood.
You know I'm only sixteen, right ?"
   "Yes. I know. Don't let anyone ever tell you there's no politics in modern
theatre. I picked this play because- well, two reasons. First, it's an
excellent piece of art- insightful, clever, thought-provoking- and second, it
has a main character who has to smoke. Once you've read the play you know
it's an integral part of the character."
   "Maybe you should chose Maura, then. She smokes."
   "If I wanted Maura, she'd be standing here right now. I want you for this
   "So what you're saying is that me standing up on stage and waving around an
unlit cigarette for an hour and an half isn't going to cut it, right ?"
   "That's right. Sometimes a little dramatic license is fine, and sometimes it
isn't. It's very important to me that we follow the script closely in this
particular regard."
   For a moment Christine sat and said nothing. She certainly knew well enough
what this was about. A part of her had no desire to put into the middle of
this- after all, she didn't see anything wrong with the law, and she hadn't
joined the Summer Drama Ensemble to make political statements.
   "Would you be doing this if you didn't smoke, Ms. Emerson ?"
   Karen had to smile. These days, many of the teachers had taken to hiding the
fact that they smoked- never at school, not in their cars, not in local
restaurants. It was this glorious sham which they were perpetrating. But not
   No. The first thing Karen did at the end of the school day- whether or not
she was planning on staying after- was to walk out the front door and light a
cigarette. She'd started smoking when she was fifteen, with her parent's open
approval, and she'd always been proud of it. For ten years it had been part
of her life.
   Of course the simple answer to the girl's question was no.
   Yet even simple wasn't honest.
   "This was voted one of five best new works from an American author last
year. I didn't chose it just to make some sort of a point-"
   "But you are trying to make a point, aren't you ? And you do understand that
I don't share the same point of view as you do."
   Karen sighed and stood up,. began pacing nervously by the desk. She mulled
over the girl's words silently for a moment. When she looked at Christine the
younger woman saw a mixture of a disappointment and determination in her
expressive blue eyes. Karen ran her hand through her long red hair and
finally said "Does this mean that you don't want the part ?"
   "No. I want the part. But I have what ? Two weeks. To learn how to smoke.
Two weeks."
   Karen smiled. "Trust me, It's plenty of time. And you'll be expected to
demonstrate that your technique is good in rehearsals."
   Christine stood up and smiled at Karen. "I'll do my best. I just hope that I
don't start to- well, I'll smoke for the sake of the play, but I don't expect
that it will lead to anything else. I really do appreciate your taking a
chance on me."
   "Don't mention it, Chrissy."
   The girl practically skipped out of the room, leaving Karen to think about
just what the risks were. About whether or not it was really right to do what
she was about to do to Chrissy.
   She really had read the best for the part. But she was also an honour
student, president of her class, and blah, blah, blah. A role model. One of
the most highly visible teen agers in Oakwood. And sometime within the next
two weeks she was going to become its most highly visible smoker as well. And
that was the role for which Karen had really chosen her.
   Chrissy picked up the phone. Put it down.
   Picked it up again. Dialed 867. Put it down again.
   Stared at it.. Sighed. Picked up one last time. Dialed 867-5309. 
   Maura answered on the third ring. "Hello ?" Then there was the unmistakable
sound of her inhaling on one of her Marlboro Lights 100s. Chrissy could hear
the paper at the end of the cigarette flare.
   "This is Christine, Maura. I spoke with Ms. Emerson this morning."
   "You got the lead, didn't you ?" Maura asked, and again, her question was
followed by another inhale. It certainly sounded easy enough.
   "Are you disappointed ?" Chrissy asked, trying to honestly care. In a way
she did, because she needed Maura's help. 
   "No. I didn't want the lead. I have a summer softball league I'm in and I
volunteer at the nursing home one day a week- I never would have been able to
keep my lines straight. Did you see what I-"
   "Helene, the cynical-"
   "Cool. I get to swear and  smoke on stage."
   Chrissy had thought when the time came that she would be nervous, unable to
ask for the favour she needed. But the opening had presented herself and she
said "That's what I need to talk to you about. I'll be honest. I need a big
   "You don't know how to swear ?" Maura asked archly.
   "No- fuck no. I don't know how to smoke, and Ms. Emerson made it clear
that's an important part of my character."
   "You want me to teach you ?" Maura asked. "Sure thing. You free now ?"
   Chrissy said that she was.
   "I can't believe I'm doing this," Chrissy said. What she was doing, from
Maura's point of view, was pretty trivial. She was holding a cigarette. Just
holding, unlit, in her left hand.. There was an awful lot of work to do and
Maura was determined to see it through.
   "You're not doing anything yet. I really want to make sure that you
understand how difficult this is going to be. You're going to be on stage for
an hour plus of the hour and thirty minutes. And you'll be smoking the whole
time. It's not like taking a puff or two and then stubbing it out. That won't
cut it for Ms. Emerson."
   "Well, if I don't pick it up, you can always take the role. You are the
   "That's why you're here and I'm helping you. The last thing I want is to
have to step in for you. No way."
   Maura studied Chrissy for a moment. She was holding the cigarette so
gingerly it look as though she was afraid it would leap out of her hand if
she squeezed too. hard. God only knew how delicately she would treat it once
it had been lit.
   "Have you told your parents about this yet ?" Maura asked.
   The shy way that Chrissy half-smiled indicated clearly that she hadn't. "I'd
rather not break the news by phone, you know."
   "What do you mean ?"
   "What I mean is that my parents take three weeks right after school lets out
and go to Europe. They usually take me, but they finally decided that I was
old enough to leave at home."
   "You chose acting in a high school play over going to Europe ?" Maura asked
   "When you've seen the Louvre six times, you've seen the Louvre. They were
going to spend all three weeks in France. It's a great place, but this may be
my only change to do something like this."
   "Do they smoke ?"
   "Well, my dad smokes a pipe. Two or three a day, actually. Once in a while
my mom takes a few drags on it, but she mostly smokes cigarettes. Not much.
Maybe a pack a week. After dinner, that sort of thing. It's not something she
talks about."
   "So you don't think they'd necessarily mind ?"
   "Well, I'm just doing it for the play," Chrissy said naively. 
   She didn't understand the reason why Maura laughed at that.
   "It's time you lit that cigarette," Maura said once her laughing subsided.
   The cigarette, already held tenuously, began to shake slightly. Just then,
Jane walked in the house. She came right to the living room and Maura handled
the introductions.
   "What are you girls up to ?" Jane asked.
   "I'm teaching Chrissy how to smoke. Want to help ?"
   Jane took a long hard look at the nervous young girl and smiled warmly.

   A week had gone by. Rehearsals were going well. Chrissy felt as though she'd
gotten a good handle on her character. In fact, last night She'd had a dream
that she was Tara. In a way, the dream was boring. She'd done Tara things-
gone to work, juggled databases, and of course, smoked cigarettes. 
   In her dream the smoking was easy. In fact. she'd woken up thinking she was
smoking a cigarette. Her hand was held close to her mouth, her lips parted
only slightly. The feel of the smoke was in her lungs, the vague and pleasant
lightheadedness a part of the waking experience.
   But of course when she rolled over and saw that it was six-thirty, there was
no cigarette in her hand.
   She immediately regretted the dream being over. In that world, there was no
nervousness, no fear that the wrong people would see her smoking. Her hand
never shook as she held the cigarette, her whole body never trembled with
   Next to the clock radio was a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights 100s. In the
last seven days she'd managed to smoke just four packs, and the majority of
those were consumed at rehearsal.
   It was obvious Ms. Emerson wasn't satisfied with her efforts in that
department quite yet.
   She thought about something Maura had suggesting. At first the idea had
seemed disgusting and unthinkable, but now, with the opening of the play
getting too close for comfort, she decided anything, no matter how bizarre,
was worth a try.
   The first thing she did was unwrap the pack of cigarettes, Already she'd
learned that there was nothing like the first cigarette from a fresh pack,
that it was somehow smoother, more pleasant than the rest. Actually, they
seemed to start getting stale after a day or so. Maura said after about three
days, they tasted just like mediums. Although Chrissy had no idea how Maura,
who smoked a pack a day, knew that. She said she'd started with mediums and
switched to please her mom. Chrissy had tried the mediums but she didn't like
them. She'd also tried menthols, Salems 100 Lights, but she hadn't liked them
   "I must be a smoker now that I've developed brand loyalty," she said aloud.
   She lit the cigarette. Here in the privacy of her own home, there was no
nervousness. In fact, today, for the very first time, there was a strong
sense of anticipation. She wanted to inhale the smoke from this cigarette,
and she recognised a certain hunger to the depth of her inhale.
   She didn't exhale in the traditional sense. Instead she let the smoke escape
slowly, pushing it just outside her mouth until it enveloped her in a sweeter
second smoke that was somehow smoother than what she inhaled. She breathed
that in and then let her free hand wander. Still not believing she was doing
what Maura had promised would help.
   The hand stopped,.
   "I'll smoke for the sake of the play, but-"
   She said it now and unlike all the other times she'd said it, the words
sounded hollow. Maybe a part of here was becoming Tara. That woman would
never say such a thing. To her, smoking was badge of honour, a part of her
psyche. After you read the play five or six times you understood that,
understood that it really did fit into the plot.
   The hand began its decent again. As if it was of a separate mind it pulled
her tight sky blue panties down. They travelled to her ankles and she let her
feet finish the work.
   She was now naked.
   Rather than immediately begin, she took another long, slow, deep inhale. Her
free hand wandered to her right breast and began gently stroking her nipple,
which was stunningly erect. She felt a smile creep across her face, and with
her mouth already opened, decided on a languorous nose exhale which wrapped
her in a thick cloud of second-hand smoke which she found enticing.
   Moistness began to intrude in that area which she had never touched
sexually. Not while she was awake. She'd woken up to wet dreams now and
again, but never had she done anything like this on purpose.
   She tapped ash into the ashtray and let herself enjoy the gentle
ministrations of her fingers on her nipple.
   Another inhale. This one was deeper, brighter, more satisfying than any
she'd ever experienced, Finally, she gave into her desires and began
searching for her pleasure spot with two eager fingers. She found it with
surprising ease and stroked it, hard and insistent. This was not a time to be
   She continued to smoke the cigarette as the moistness became a flow, as the
rush of the moment enveloped her. Finally, just as she took the last pull on
the cigarette, she came, a marvelous quiver which forced her to close her
eyes and throw her head back on her pillow.
   Chrissy rested for only a brief moment, lit another cigarette, and walked
slowly into the bathroom. She needed a strong cup of coffee and she needed to
practise smoking in her car, since the final scene in the play involved that,
and Maura said it was the hardest part of learning to smoke properly. "If you
can smoke while you're driving, you can smoke anywhere- and boy, can you
attract attention."
   She decided today was the perfect time to start on that last skill.
   "I can't believe how much better your smoking looked today," Ms. Emerson
said to Chrissy, who smiled broadly around the cigarette dangling in her
mouth, which she lit with unshaking hands.
   "Maura taught me something." She saw the longing look on her teacher's face
and handed her the cigarette.
   Karen looked around, saw that nobody was watching them, and took a long pull
on the cigarette
   "I think you're going to do just fine."
   "I-" Chrissy paused. Did she really want to thank this woman for hooking her
on smoking ?
   Yes, she most certainly did.
   "Thanks, Karen. I never thought I'd actually enjoy smoking, you know."
   "I never had any doubts," Karen said, bumming another inhale off the
cigarette at Chrissy urging. "But are you ready for what might happen ?"
   "You said there's always politics in theatre. I just hope this helps."
   "It will-"
   Maura walked over to them. "Chrissy, I hate to be a pain, but I really need
to get going."
   Chrissy excused herself and the two girls walked out of the auditorium,
sharing the cigarette. Chrissy took it back from her friend with a certain
sense of wonder. She was smoking in the school. That was so far from-
   Well, what she had been. But nothing had changed. Had it ? She was still an
honour student, still all the things that-
   She began to understand the political reasons why Karen might have chosen
   They got in the car and before Chrissy started it up, both girls lit
   "You're going to smoke while you drive ?" Maura asked as Chrissy pulled the
old Subaru GL out of the parking space.
   "You said it was the hardest thing. After this morning, I'll try anything-"
   Chrissy nodded and that was more than enough of an answer.

   Tara lit her first cigarette of the evening.
   The curtain went up and she walked into her living room. Chrissy was no
longer anywhere to be found. there was just a stunning attractive young woman
with henna-dyed hair who strolled over to her couch and sat down next to
Helene, who had still been Maura five minutes ago.
   "God, work was a bitch today. The mainframe was down all afternoon and the
   "Were accountants, right ?" Helene asked.
   Helene leaned over and kissed her lover on the lips. The two girls had
agreed to no tongue, but that had been in rehearsal. Helene found herself
hungry for the taste of the smoke swimming in Tara's mouth. The two women
found their lips open, exchanged the sweet smoke between them. There was an
audible gasp from the audience as Helene exhaled some of that smoke. She then
(as the script called for) lit her own cigarette as she stood up.
   "I have to go to Boston tomorrow- for a week."
   Right about then, Tara was supposed to grab Helene by the arm and tell her
that she couldn't possibly leave her for a week, not now with-
   Instead, she paused and watched Helene light her cigarette, watched her
lover take a long, sensuous, self-absorbed inhale that made the tip of the
cigarette flare.
   "You can't leave me. Not now-"
   Helene closed the gap between them, and the two women shared a second kiss.
The script called for it to be more sexual than the first, and they found
themselves swept away by the lights and the heat of the audience and the
palpable sense of shock which was washing over the stage like a dark wave.
   More smoke was shared in this kiss and the two girls found themselves
twining their tongues in exactly the way Tara and Helene would have. Tara
felt herself go moist as she had that day she finally understood what it
really meant to smoke and the two closed in a tight, almost x-rated embrace.
The clutch was broken, Chrissy and Maura reformed on the stage, wondering
what they were doing, and-
   They both found themselves inhaling hungrily on the cigarettes as Karen saw
the play she'd chosen with more than a little fear coming to life with a
torrid force she'd never hoped for.
   There was such a tight electricity between the two, all the more amasing
because Maura's part was so small, just this scene and one at the very end.
   "Can't you-" Tara said, each word carried on a puff of cloudy smoke.
   That was as far as the two of them got. The audience was sitting in shocked
silence, the play was sure to something that would always be remembered-
   When the lights went down and the curtain rushed to the stage, ending the

   The three women were sitting in the sheriff's office. Vicki was pacing back
and forth, looking by turns agitated, annoyed, and embarrassed.
   "You understand I had no choice. Mrs. Walker got hold of a copy of the play.
It was either that or my job-"
   Not one of the three women understood in the least.
   Chrissy defiantly lit a cigarette and Maura immediately followed. Both
expected the sheriff to order the cigarettes put out but she did no such
thing. Instead, she lit one of her own, a Benson and hedges. Not wanting to
be left out, Karen lit up as well, and while the four women studied one
another the office was filled with cigarette smoke and angry looks.
   "The question is where we go from here-"
   No one spoke. The three women simply sat and smoked in stony silence.
   "Look, we can all hate me for doing what I did, or we can use this to our
   "Our advantage ?" Karen asked sarcastically.
   "I thought you staged this play because you wanted to force the issue, Ms.
Emerson. The question is- Do you ? Or do you want to sulk like all the
artists down the ages ? It's your choice."
   Suddenly, Karen understood.
   "We're listening."
   By the time Vicki was done talking, they were glad they had.

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