The key to being a stage actor is to overdramatize. Screen actors often don't have to do this because camera close-ups show the audience every eyebrow twitch. Stage actors have to make large movements and sounds to make others aware of the emotions that they want to convey. My mother was a stage actress, which for her meant that she overdramatized everything -- even when she was offstage.
When Mother would volunteer to come and read Roald Dahl to my elementary school class, many of the children would cry as she read the voices of the evil villains totally in character. I used to feel that she was so deeply involved in playing other people that she never really cared about being my mother.
I learned to speak listening to my mother rehearse lines. While other children were reading children's books, I was reading lines with my mother from shows like "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Night Must Fall." She once picked me up for lunch on her rehearsal break in a large purple Bride of Frankenstein beehive for her role in "Revenge of the Space Pandas." Mother never really taught me much about how to blend in, and moving around a lot as my corporate executive father's went from job to job did not really help me make friends.
We moved about fourteen different times during the course of my youth, mostly throughout the South. In those days, when you moved into a neighborhood, you were greeted by a welcome wagon, complete with casseroles, fruitcakes, and various freezable items. Once we went through everything in the freezer, it was time to move again.
Mother was very territorial about her kitchen when she came in between shows. She had a bit of a temper in general -- when my brother and I heard those heels clicking on the tile in a certain way and her exasperated drawl voice doubling every syllable in our names, we knew it was time to run for it. Trespassing in her sacred casserole-thawing zone could earn you anything from an evil, Vivian Leigh-style eyebrow raise to a literal slap in the face from a 5'10'' tall woman with her voice raised an octave-and-a-half. Thus I never learned much about cooking, and to this day I feel somewhat intimidated in kitchens.
What Mother did teach me, instead of how to speak, cook, or blend in, were plenty of charming colloquialisms and how to dispense solid, if brutally honest, advice. "Well, I'm sorry you had to break off the engagement. I TOLD you never to date someone prettier than you."
My mom's moral code was always a bit baffling to me, but what really confused me, given her life as an artist, was the ultra-conservative Baptist stance that she often took. She always told me that homosexuality was wrong even though she seemed to have a following of gay male theater types, and when I showed off her Thespian Society plaque at my 5th grade career day, the other kids informed me that she probably earned this "thespian" honor by kissing girls.
Still, I was always proud of my mother as a child, despite her contradictions. As I entered my teen years, though, everything she said began to sound superficial and contradictory . The more I started questioning, the more every one of her actions seemed executed for the sole purpose of creating drama and also indicative of willful ignorance. Eventually I moved as far away as possible -- I joined the Marines. Mother never seemed to notice when I was gone before, so I didn't expect to be missed.
I think of our relationship as really beginning when I was in boot camp, when we started writing letters back and forth. Mother was going through a divorce, and I wrote her the military cadences that I was learning. She replied to me with beautifully handwritten letters with -- of course -- tear-stained ink.
When I was in my late 20s, we both ended up back in school in Jackson, Mississippi. I was getting my law degree, and Mother was becoming a nurse. Perhaps unbelievably, we decided to become roommates, and I would often come home ranting about the way minorities and gay people were treated in Mississippi. Mother would shake her head and inform me that I was just being too dramatic and that I would never understand her home state.
I thought we were at an impasse again, until one day when Mother suddenly looked up from her nursing textbook. She stopped for a moment and made her "reflective" face, releasing a deliberate heavy sigh, with her thumb and forefinger pressed against her chin. "I am a good, Christian person. I have decided that I accept you even though you are gay. Am I a cool mom or what?"
This was roughly three years after I had come out to her.
I looked up from my law book, let out a heavy, deliberate sigh, pressed the thumb and forefinger of one hand against my chin, and put my other hand on her shoulder.
"Mother, I want you to know that even though you're straight, I accept you too. I must be an especially good person."
"Oh, Leigh Ay-un."
We looked at each other and smiled ... subtle, genuine smiles. It took me almost 30 years, but I finally caught the stage actress off guard.