The Understudy

Susie and I went to Casey’s school play yesterday, The Little Mermaid. All kids, ages 9 to 16. Small theater. It was parent’s day. Glad we got to go.

Casey played one of the eels—Flotsam—and he did very, very well (unbiased assessment).

But this story is not about Casey, it’s about the lead character Arial, the little mermaid who wants to be a human. She’s interested in all things human, has a collection of miscellaneous human things like forks and ‘thingamabobs’, sings like an angel and pines for life on the other side of the beach.

The little girl cast as Arial was a no-show. Casey came out before the play and told us she was at the Emergency Room. In her pre-play announcement, the self-obsessed director told the audience “her Arial was a no-show,” much to our horror and offense: she referred to the hospitalized girl as a no-show (though afterwords Casey said ‘ a reliable source’ had told him she hadn’t been at the ER, she had gone to church and simply forgoten—so who knows what really happened).

Here’s the catch: there was no understudy for the role of Arial! They were sunk. The poor girl who volunteered to take Arial’s part for today’s show had had a minor role in the play and had predominantly been one of the curtain closers. She got the script 30 minutes before show time and so please forgive her as she would be allowed to do the play with script in hand. “Ahh, live theater,” said the sweating director.

On with the show.

A scene or two of sailors at sea, then enter Arial. Out came a girl with eyes shining, fully immersed in her role, not a shred of fear. She was full tilt in it, her eyes shone, her mermaid heart yearned—yearned—to be an earthling with legs. She adored her collection of earthling trinkets and sang with a conviction that compensated for her less-than-perfect voice.

She was convincing, she was believable—she was Arial. Her spoken lines came from her heart, not a single mistake—none that we discerned—our eyes watered with resonance for her heart’s desires—and when the show ended and she came out for her bows, Susie and I gave her a standing ovation, surprised that the whole audience had not jumped to their feet in admiration and acclaim. It was truly inspiring and truly an insight into heart, commitment, and the virtue of truth in stories told.

After the play the actors greeted the audience in the lobby. Once the crowd thinned, I asked the understudy: How did you do that?

“I don’t know,” she said. She had never run the show even once as Arial. Her job had been closing curtains. And she only saw the script for her first time a mere 30 minutes before showtime.


She was brilliant. And not to contradict, but I don’t believe she understands what happened. I believe she believed she was Arial. I believe she heard every word of every rehearsal, listened to every line, knew every word of every character in the play—just like daughter Nikki did when she played Annie. She knew everyone’s lines and could sub in at rehearsals for other peoples parts.

I believe the little girl felt she should have been Arial, that she wanted that role as deeply as Arial wanted legs, and that yesterday her dream came true.

I believe we got to see her live her dream. It was the highlight of our week.

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