There is a certain irony that my grandson Jack performed in his last musical with the varsity theater group at his school this past weekend and that the play was Into the Woods. The piece was wildly popular on Broadway in the nineteen eighties about the time that Jack’s mother was ending her own days in high school. It is a profound story of relationships and the consequences of the choices that we make. It is a study of the fine line between childhood and becoming a true adult. Nothing is as it really seems or as simple as we would like things to be.
Jack played both the narrator and the mysterious man, a rather fitting dual role whose significance for me he may not fully understand until I explain. I found myself enthralled by the brilliance of his performance and his ability to nuance the subtleties and complexities of the parts. All in all Jack and his co-actors ultimately moved me to both tears and reflection which is as the authors of the play no doubt intended.
Jack is named for a man that he never met, my father who would have been his great grandfather. The two Jacks are far more alike than almost anyone might suspect. My grandson like his long dead ancestor is a kind of renaissance man, someone who is as comfortable in a world of mathematics and science as in the domain of artistry. Like my father he is a sensitive soul who often finds himself questioning the ways of the world. He has so many talents and interests that he might follow a variety of paths in life just as was the case with his namesake. Both are known for looking at the world from many different angles. At the same time they might both be described as having a kind of innocent boyishness and joy of living that has made them attractive to others.
My father Jack loved to read and he passed that hobby down to me beginning when I was very young. He purchased two volumes of fairytales that he read faithfully to me. Those stories created a secret bond between the two of us and kept his memory alive long after he had died.
At first my thoughts of my father were romantic and childish much like the first act of Into the Woods and the stories that he read to me. I missed him terribly and often found myself having foolish dreams that he would one day return to guide and comfort me. Sadly reality never really works like that as is so profoundly revealed the second act of Into the Woods. There comes a moment when we all realize that we must cross over from the fantasies of our childhood into the world of reality. We learn that each of the choices that we make have consequences not only for ourselves but also for the people around us. We can only rely on our parents for so long and then we must face the fact that as we make our own ways we will undoubtedly make mistakes just as they did.
My grandfather was a kind of narrator, just like Jack was in his school play. Grandpa was the father of my father Jack. He often told stories of his own childhood and related history as he had lived it. He gave me great comfort any time that I was feeling down. He was a living link to my own father. His stories were not as lovely as the fairytales of my youth. He spoke to me with honesty because I was an adult and he understood that I must face even dark stories. He admitted to overcoming alcoholism and enduring profound depression and loneliness before encountering my grandmother and starting a family of his own. Like the songs in Into the Woods he found ways of bringing humor to situations that were actually quite tragic. He had developed a wisdom that allowed him to realize that sometimes we laugh and cry at the same time. Sometimes we are both frightened and curious. He had lived long enough to see that no person or situation is usually all good or all bad. He taught me that life is complex and we can neither run away from it nor tackle it alone. Like the mysterious man that grandson Jack also portrayed in his play, my grandfather had faced up to his own demons and conveyed to me the wisdom that he had learned from those battles.
I suspect that my grandson Jack has little idea how much his musical affected me. I thought of all of the times when I wanted to run away from the very adult responsibility of caring for my mother that was thrust upon me even before I had begun to explore the world. I had believed that she was supposed to be my rock and foundation but instead our roles were often reversed. I found myself making silly wishes with regard to our difficult relationship when she was very sick. Time again I had to rely on the kindness of others to help me through the most trying situations. I learned that I was much stronger than I had ever imagined and that I really didn’t need a narrator to tell me how my story should go.
I want to share my thoughts about his play and his role in it with my grandson Jack. I want to tell him the tale of his family thus far and how we all worked together and with an odd assortment of friends in reaching this day and time. I want him to know that we have seen triumph and tragedy, jubilation and bitter disappointment. Ours has been a very imperfect family but somehow we have managed to keeping traveling in and out of the woods, overcoming giants and wolves. We have been as human as the characters in the musical in which Jack had a starring role.
Hopefully my grandson will have learned more from his acting experience than just his lines and the melodies that he performed. If he reflects carefully he will see that there is an important message for each of us contained in the wittiness of the words and songs that he and his friends executed so very well. I wish for him to reach the depth of wisdom that is to be found in this musical that is not so much for children as for the child that lives inside all adults.
I suspect that Jack does indeed understand. He would not have been as convincing in his acting if he had not realized the power of the message that he was conveying through his expressions and the tenor of his voice. It is a good way for him to step out of the world of children and onto the pathway that will lead him into the adventure that he will one day call his life. I hope he knows now that he and only he is the teller of his story. How it proceeds and where it ultimately ends is up to him. It is an exciting journey that will not be without its misdirection and loss but will also bring him the realization of some of the most wonderful wishes that enter his head in the quiet of night. Along the way he will have unexpected encounters with people who will both help and hinder him. If he has truly learned his lessons well he will be ready for whatever comes. He will realize that all of us have a once upon a time that is only as lovely as we work to make it be. The magic is not in witches or beans or potions but within our own minds.