That famous Robert Doisneau photograph, "The Kiss at the Hotel DeVille," is everywhere at the Indiana Repertory Theatre right now. On posters and playbills, tacked on bulletin boards, tucked into actors" rehearsal scripts of the play. You know the one: black and white, a blurry Paris street, a young couple caught in a passionate kiss as the rest of the world goes by, oblivious. It hurts to look at it. The lovely endlessness of the kiss balanced against the knowledge that seconds after the shutter clicked, the lovers moved on into the day, into their lives. They grew old, as we all must.
But, as Faulkner said, the past isn"t dead; it isn"t even past. This is the subject of Indiana Repertory Theatre"s playwright-in-residence James Still"s new work, He Held Me Grand, which opens Oct. 4 at the IRT. Based on dozens of interviews with Indianapolis seniors and their families, the play begins early one morning when April, an 80-something widow, is awakened by a man who professes to be her long-lost grandson. Spanning the last century in the life of an Indianapolis family, nostalgic and sometimes hilarious, it explores all kinds of love past and present. Memories return with force, lives are examined. A week or so into rehearsal, playwright Still, director David Bradley, the entire cast of He Held Me Grand, various note-taking IRT staff members and eight of the seniors who were interviewed for the project gather in a circle of chairs in the center of IRT"s rehearsal room. Vintage 1940s stage props have been shoved aside to make room for them: a scratchy green sofa and armchair, a spinet piano, lamps, rolled-up rugs, brocade pillows, an end table with an old black Bakelite telephone sitting on a lace doily. There"s a garment rack, hung with dark suits, a gray trench coat, a tuxedo jacket; men"s wing tips and a straw hat, women"s high-heeled shoes and pocketbooks are in a clutter on the low shelf. One of the senior ladies has set her own beige pocketbook - almost exactly like the beige pocketbook on the shelf - on the floor beside her chair. She"s nicely dressed - all the ladies are. Their silver hair coiffed. The two men look sharp, in dress pants and starched shirts. They"ve agreed to come today to help the actors research their roles. It"s a little awkward at first. They"re a reticent generation, after all. As most of us parented by them know all too well, they don"t really like to talk about themselves - or at least they didn"t until they sat down face-to-face with Still a few years ago and found themselves telling him all sorts of things about their lives. Several seem a bit bemused to be here now, committed to sharing their stories again - this time with the actors whose roles in the play reflect their experiences during World War II. But they trust Still - actually, they adore him - so they are here for him today, willing to travel into the past again. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his brown hair going every which way from his having run his hands through it again and again, Still thanks them for what is probably the thousandth time for their generosity over the four years of the project. He reassures them that this play he made with their help is not actually about them; it"s a work of the imagination inspired by their stories and their spirits, a reflection of their experiences and of what he learned, listening, being in their presence. "You have taught me that no one has lived an ordinary life," he says. "There"s no such thing." The afternoon"s work is a kind of laboratory to explore the issues in the play, he tells them. Everything from historical details of time and place to what it feels like, what it means to grow older. "What are the challenges, the joys, the surprises?" he asks. "What couldn"t you have imagined? What remains the same?" The rules are, the actors can ask anything. The seniors can say, "I"m not going to tell you that." Still begins by asking the seniors to share what they remember of Pearl Harbor. Theodosia Duncan heard the news catching a streetcar to go visit her grandmother. Walking home from the movies, Dorthea Poindexter heard it pouring from countless radios in Lockfield Gardens. They all remember ration books, with coupons you tore out to buy your quota of meat, sugar, eggs, shoes, tires. They remember planting victory gardens, saving up to buy war bonds, listening to big band music. But it is the quirkiness of memory that is so compelling, the small details of real people"s lives that make the actors lean forward in their chairs. The expectation that guests would bring their meat coupons with them if invited to dinner, the lady at the Friday-night dances at the Phyllis Wheatley YMCA, who shined a spotlight on teen-agers dancing too close, embarrassing the girls and giving the boys something to brag about at school on Monday morning. Charles Poindexter remembers how German prisoners of war, brought in from Camp Atterbury to load freight cars, called out to him while he was on his paper route and tore stripes and insignias from their uniforms to trade for newspapers. Dorothy Linke remembers rent parties, given for families they knew were having trouble making ends meet. They"d cook a meal and take it over, pretending it was leftovers. They"d set a tray out and guests would quietly leave whatever little money they could spare. Lena Cohen remembers party lines, the way some people quietly lifted the telephone receiver and eavesdropped on their neighbors" conversations. Margot Eccles explains how women used their eyebrow pencils to draw black lines on the backs of their legs so that it looked as if they were wearing silk stockings. "Get a pair of stockings, you"d get the girl," J.B. Bowen adds, laughing. Then holds the actors, rapt, describing the Claypool Hotel, where he and his mother always met after a day of shopping downtown, and the Indiana Theatre - now the IRT"s home - the way he saw it as a boy in love with vaudeville. Most remember the "40s as a slower, simpler, happier time. They went to church on Sunday mornings, to the movies on Sunday afternoons. Evenings, they listened to the radio. They look bemused when a young actress asks, "What things did your mothers do that you thought were so out of it Ö uncool? What didn"t they understand about you?" They never dreamed of questioning their mothers, they say. They never even thought they could. Nor did most actively rebel against the racial constraints of the time. Theaters, hotels and dance pavilions were segregated. Many neighborhoods were off-limits to black families. Black soldiers and black women were not even welcome at the USO. Blacks speak of these things matter-of-factly, whites with some reluctance - and embarrassment, often turning the conversation back to other things. Nobody much likes to talk about what it"s like to be old, either. In fact, sharing the memories of their youth, they feel - and are - young again. Lost loved ones come alive again, as present in the rehearsal room as we are. I half-believe that if we all stopped and listened hard we could hear the ghost of big band music wafting down to us from the dark, empty Indiana Roof. Rehearsal moves to dinner where Sept. 11 is commemorated with a minute of silence, and then the lively conversations between the actors and seniors continue over a perfect "40s meal of meatloaf, carrots and mashed potatoes. J.B. Bowen, who was involved in every aspect of Still"s oral history project, says it was one of the most momentous experiences of his life. Frances Linthecome says of Still, "I never thought I"d tell him so much. But the way he wove my life into the play - it"s me, but even people who knew me wouldn"t know it." She saw herself four times in the play, she tells me: in a beauty shop scene, a story about her grandparents, a recurring dream she had as a little girl and a memory of playing bridge. Smiling, luminous, she leans toward me and says, "Look for me."