PARTY ALL THE TIME: Dim All the Lights is Wilson’s second play about this particular blind date.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Blind date. The two words sit there awkwardly next to each other, pressed side by side like strangers at the top of a stopped Ferris wheel, the narrow seat swaying.

Dallas playwright and producer Angela Wilson knows blind dates. As a theater artist working in Dallas, a city where “it’s hard to be poor,” she used to go on a lot of them because it was a way to eat. Speaking of which, she once had a blind date so overweight that they had to go on a picnic because he was too big to sit down in a restaurant.

When I found out that Wilson was going to produce her new play at Theatre Quorum, I wanted to track it as it grew, which explains my presence as the audience for this anecdote. She’s telling the story in her condo, where three cast members—Nye Cooper, Lisa Fairchild, and Christie Beckham—have gathered with Lisa Cotie, Wilson’s co-producer, for a choreography rehearsal of the new play, Dim All the Lights.

Cotie explains that in disco, all movements go straight into the next movement without stopping, and she shows Beckham—a very good dancer, it turns out—how to use as much of her space as possible. “Disco is really big moves—and fast,” she says, demonstrating what she means. (I need to renew my Vytorin, I suddenly remember.) After Cooper and Beckham master the basic steps, with lots of funny disco reminiscences flowing, Cotie runs through a few other physical matters in the play: a scene when Cooper has to slump so far from his chair that his head bonks the floor, another one when Beckham slaps him. Cooper, who played in The Santaland Diaries at WaterTower Theatre for five years (“I hate David Sedaris,” he confesses), says that he’ll take the sting of a real slap any day to some guy in the audience rolling his eyes in the close quarters of the Bath House, where the play opens on December 1.

Cotie has to get home to her young kids, so the rehearsal breaks up early, but everybody stays for a few minutes to talk through the play, which leads back to the subject of blind dates. Wilson speaks fondly of the heavy man with whom her friends set her up. At the picnic, Wilson says, he took up the entire backseat of the car, so she sat outside.

He’s one of her funny dates, and he’s mentioned in the play, by the way. But she once had a blind date so unforgettable that she still obsesses over it 20 years later. He’s the one she had told me about a couple of weeks earlier outside of Starbucks in Uptown.

“I’ll never forget meeting this guy, because he was fantastic. He laughed all the time. He was hilarious. And then he sprung it on me: ‘Don’t get attached to me, because I’m dying.’

“I had actually been set up on a blind date with a guy who was going to die in a few weeks,” she says, still marveling at it. “I didn’t handle it very well. I abandoned the poor guy immediately.”

The problem was that she liked him. “He was somebody I’ve never forgotten. I’ve never found out what happened to him or anything. It’s just plagued my mind. I can’t tell you the impact it had on me. I never could understand why somebody like that would want to go on a blind date and try to meet somebody.” She pauses, musing about it. “I guess you could easily get to the end and not have anybody in your life and try to find somebody. But it’s just bothered me so much to tell this guy’s story, and I don’t know why.”

Wilson has tried twice to tell it. In the late ’90s, she wrote a play called The Ladies’ Room and fashioned the part of the dying man for Carl Savering, her then boyfriend and partner in Theatre Quorum. “Carl was wonderful, and the play did very well, but I didn’t feel the play was exactly the story I wanted to tell,” she says. So she wrote it again and lined up Cynthia Hestand to direct it for Theatre Quorum. In late August, the two of them assembled a group of Dallas actors to read through it.

“Well, for me it was terrible,” she says. She thought the actors were excellent and the ideas they generated together were great, but to execute them all and have a full-time job—she works at a downtown law office—seemed prohibitive. She worked on the play all through the Labor Day weekend, when she e-mailed me that she had been “writing madly for four days, at home, on holiday. I’ve gone in a thousand directions that lead to dead ends, and today I absolutely hate the play!”

Although Dim All the Lights wasn’t finished, the auditions went well the next weekend, and by the third week of September, the play was cast. Nye Cooper stars as Chris Amber, whom Wilson describes as “the terminally ill party animal.” He loves to disco and he’s dying of a brain tumor. Lauren Embrey plays Angie, the date. Scott Eckerd is Chris’ friend, a lounge lizard musician named Charlie who slept with Chris’ wife Jackie. And Christie Beckham is Tina, a barfly and “angel of death.”

For Wilson, the revelation in the auditions was Lisa Fairchild, who had the lead role of the wronged wife in The Women at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas earlier this year. In Wilson’s play, she has the difficult role of Chris’ mother, Christine. She cannot stand it that Chris has never divorced the unfaithful Jackie, who will inherit his money when Chris dies. Christine wants his money for herself, and she says so. It would be easy to read her as a monster, like the hick mother of Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby, but that’s not at all what Wilson had in mind. Lisa Fairchild got it without being told.

At the choreography rehearsal, the conversation goes from blind dates and disco back to the central issues of the play, especially Fairchild’s role—one that both Wilson and Fairchild understand from experience they’ve had with their own families. They talk openly about the way that having someone sick for a long time hardens you, changes you. Other people might think you’re callous or cruel, but that’s not it.

“As I told Angela and Cynthia at the audition,” Fairchild says, “I don’t see Christine as a monster at all. She is a mother with a dying child, and she has been dealing with the specter of his mortality for quite a while. He may be a grown man, but he is still her child. She is terrified of losing him and being alone and, yes, being poor. Her fears come out of her as anger and bitterness, and she does say some really awful things. I can see how desperation to keep someone alive when there is no hope could make you a lunatic. She just wants compensation for her loss.”

For Wilson, maybe because of Fairchild and the other actors, the play feels better now than it did before—truer, closer to the arc of what really happens. “The story has to be about what he wants while he’s dying,” she says. “Why would anybody choose to live out their life so fully at the end?” Why,in other words, he would want to date? Why would he want to disco, of all things?

She knows the answer. She keeps circling back from the dying Chris to what’s been going on at this rehearsal—learning to disco. She keeps talking lightly about that era until something crucial begins to shine through, something she’s really telling us about this play. With a slightly self-mocking poignancy, she talks about going out night after night, how everybody dressed up and looked good in that now-dated John Travolta milieu of Saturday Night Fever.

“I felt like I would never die on the disco floor,” she says. At first I don’t quite get what she means. Then it hits me.

Before that blind date, she means, she was going to live forever.



 

SAVE THE DATES

GOD BLESS US EVERY ONE: Check out A Christmas Carol.
photography courtesy of Dallas Theater Center
Through December 16
Who but Kitchen Dog would welcome the holiday season—
seriously, now!—with a play about an ex-football star (bum knee, broke) trying to escape from his mother’s Bible-themed miniature golf course? Don’t count on Jesus Hates Me for Santa sightings. Laughs are another matter. The MAC. 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1055. www.kitchendogtheater.org.

November 24 – December 24
Yes, the Dallas Theater Center has been staging A Christmas Carol, in different incarnations, every Christmas since 1984 (and five times before that), but Dickens’ classic Christmas story keeps working its magic. Joel Ferrell returns this year to direct Richard Hellesen’s adaptation. 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. 214-522-8499. www.dallastheatercenter.org.

December 1 – 31
The biggest hit of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ first season, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, returns this Christmas. The play, set in Atlanta, is about a Jewish family in 1939. Hitler has invaded Poland and an Eastern European cousin from Brooklyn named Joe has come to the South and started turning heads. But, best of all, Gone with the Wind is just about to have its world premiere. 5601 Sears St. 214-828-0094. www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com.



photography courtesy of Museum of Nature & Science
Dead On
A new exhibit presents real bodies, really close-up. They’re hard to ignore.

Beginning December 9, visitors get to check out what only doctors and medical students generally get to see: how the body really looks and works. The Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park (www.natureandscience.org), formerly the Dallas Museum of Natural History and the Science Place, is hosting an exhibit of human bodies. Approximately 25 are whole. Others are organs, organ configurations, and transparent body slices. And all 200 or so have been preserved through Plastination, a process that halts decomposition and preserves human bodies by extracting fluids and fats, replacing them with resins and elastomers, and then curing the specimens.

Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies (www.bodyworlds.com) is controversial. It is an exhibit of naked, dead bodies, after all. But nearly 20 million people have viewed it worldwide. “The controversy goes away as soon as you see the show,” says museum CEO Nicole Small. “The way the bodies are displayed is reverential. It’s awe inspiring and elegant.” And every body in the exhibit was donated specifically for exhibition.

Small calls it a blockbuster. Many people surveyed after viewing the exhibit say it inspired them to change their unhealthy ways. “You will never smoke again, and you will never eat another funnel cake or corny dog,” Small says. “Seeing it will change your life.” —JENNY BLOCK

Tickets are sold for specific dates and times only. The museum suggests that kids under 13 come with an adult.