Six weeks to Christmas, two weeks to opening night . . .
"OK, shut it down, shut it down, shut it down."
Gwendolyn Driver waved her arms. She was not satisfied - her standard state this time of year.
"Take a break, everyone. I need a minute to think."
Gwen stood up to her full 5-foot-11 and gazed across the rehearsal room in the former Catholic school in Fishtown. But her focus wasn't on the old blackboard on the wall, or the clutter of props and guitar cases on the floor.
Her mind's eye summoned a precise image of Plays and Players Theatre near Rittenhouse Square. The skit they'd just stumbled through wouldn't have looked pretty on that tiny stage. Something about the blocking was off.
Gwen would stand stock-still, silent, right index finger to her lips, until she figured it out. If it took 10 seconds . . . or 10 minutes.
Veterans of previous Penn Comic Theatre productions were used to Gwen's fugue states and were confident she'd emerge from this one with a fix to the awkwardness they'd just committed.
She had better, because this year's holiday production of 2015 – Was It Just a Dream? was opening in just 14 days.
So the cast waited out Gwen's reverie without annoyance. But not without noise.
"What it is, what it is, hoo, hoo hoo . . .."
Molly Wang did a soft-shoe as she sang the lyric from Fun Home, Lisa Kron's Tony-winner. Nick O'Malley indulged - for the third time today - in a windmilling, comic trust fall. He tumbled backward, a cascade of red hair and freckles, into the long arms of Van Lipscomb, the play's praying mantis of a musical director, 6 feet, 6 inches of skin, bones, and talent. When called upon, Nick and Van could be deadly serious about the difficult art of making people laugh, but in between, they reserved the right to act like rambunctious third-graders.
Marshall Jefferson, the one rookie in the cast this year, sat off by himself on a folding chair, studying the script.
Dan Davis, the one actor who'd been by Gwen's side for all 10 years of this annual revue, leaned forward, staring at his iPhone.
Dan, who doubled as the theater's ad salesman, turned to Harris Diggs, the stage manager and Penn Comic's frontal lobe.
"Why do I check Gmail, Harris? It brings nothing but misery. Downtown Diner, they've been in the Playbill, what, eight years now? Just sent an email. Nothing doing this year."
"Scrapple sales must be down," Harris replied.
Penn Comic was clinging to the cliff like the heroine of a 1930s movie serial, and Harris, who kept the books, knew it better than anyone.
"Freaking Chaz, and his freaking bike," Dan mumbled.
If only Chaz Kiernan, the lead in their spring production, hadn't been riding his Cannondale along Spring Garden at the precise moment that jerk from the burbs had flung open the door of his damn SUV . . .
Penn Comic's finances hadn't yet recovered from the six nights of box office lost to Chaz' broken face.
Dream was Penn Comic's last chance to stay off life support, to keep paying its little permanent staff of five and the wider circle of actors and techs who depended on it for gigs.
"OK, places everyone!" Gwen clapped her hands. "I've got something for you to try."
It was minimally invasive surgery. A nip and a tuck to a couple of speeches. A new opening mark and a revised swoop across stage for Van. A delay of three beats in Marshall's big entrance.
The cast raced through the skit. Lines volleyed crisply, and actors wheeled smartly about the "stage" - taped outlines on the linoleum that mimicked the dimensions at Plays and Players.
At skit's end, all looked to Gwen for two beats. She smiled. Whoops and cheers.
"People, that one may finally be up on its feet," Gwen said, pushing back her long, curly brown hair.
"Gwen, break due in two minutes," Harris intoned. He'd been frantically typing her script and blocking changes into his MacBook Pro.
"OK, when we get back we'll start working the "Straight Outta Camden" number. Then we'll call it a day. Some of us have children to feed."
As the actors scampered out, Gwen settled into the folding chair next to Harris' station, which was littered with ringed binders, Post-its, and stained coffee cups.
"God, Harris, we're at least a week behind."
"Which you always say at precisely 4:32 p.m. on Nov. 16 every year. Yet somehow we always make it to opening night."
Was It a Just Dream? was a ripped-from-the-headlines romp through the myriad outrages of politics and pop culture. So of-the-moment was the show, Gwen and the cast couldn't even begin framing songs and skits until November. The frenzied pace didn't let up after opening night. To keep Dream timely, fresh grist had to be fed into the punch line machine throughout the show's December run.
It was a high-wire act, one that thrilled Gwen but also left her with a queasy stomach every year from Columbus Day to New Year's.
"C'mon, you must see it," Gwen said. "Act 1 just isn't meshing yet, and Act 2 is a formless blob. And did you see, Bobby Jindal dropped out today? That's four good jokes gone to the graveyard."
"Yes, how will the republic survive this loss?"
"Mock me all you want. But you know the deal: We've got to fill the house this year. No bad reviews allowed."
"Here's what I know, Gwen. When you go home tonight, you should pour yourself a nice pinot noir, wash it down with a pizza from Luigi's, and play a couple of rounds of Uno with Gina. Forget the show. It'll still be there in the morning."
Gwen pretended to scowl, but her hand squeezed Harris' wrist.
"So, how are ticket sales so far?"
"Decent. Decent. But no point in hiding it, did you hear Downtown Diner scrapped their ad?"
"Shoot, shoot, shoot." Gwen's scowl returned for real. "Dream has to do 5 percent better than last year. It has to."
"Let Dan and me worry about raking in the dough. Right now, we don't want you being anxious. We need you being hilarious. Focus on funny."
Gwen's cellphone buzzed. She looked at the caller ID: Katrina Vogel.
Katrina lived in the next South Philly rowhouse over from the one into which Gwen and her daughter Gina moved last year - after Gwen's separation from Drew.
When Gwen was stuck in rehearsals, the older neighbor watched over Gina after the girl got home from middle school. Katrina waved off any offer of payment - other than the occasional glass of pinot.
"Hi, Katrina. What's up?"
Gwen walked into the wardrobe room, ridiculous hats and masks hung on walls, racks crowded with Wookiee suits and sleek chanteuse gowns, the residue of a decade of wringing laughs out of the orchestra and the balcony.
"I have to tell you something."
Panic shot into Gwen's throat. She leaned on a rack of sequined courtiers' costumes, ready for the "Madness of King Barack" skit.
"Is Gina - ?"
"She is safe, right here beside me. But . . . she just got home."
"Two hours after school? Why?"
"I don't know exactly. Gina's just scowling at me and speaking in monosyllables. But I do know she came home in the car of a boy, a junior at South, a 17-year-old. And she won't tell me who he was or how she came to be with him."
Last year at this time, Gina was still rereading Harry Potter books and hugging American Girl dolls. Now . . . 17-year-olds.
"Can you put Gina on?"
A rustling at the other end.
"What?" Flat, sullen.
"What were you doing all afternoon?"
"Can we not talk about this now in front of Mrs. Vogel? Can I just wait for you at home?"
"No, you may not. I'm leaving now. Stay there until I get home."
More rustling . . . Katrina spoke: "See what I mean?"
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
The newfound trials of single parenthood would not wait. Van would have to lead the cast on a first pass through the Straight Outta Compton parody that closed Act 1.
"Ahhh, Drew," Gwen murmured as she unlocked her bicycle outside the school and girded for the long ride home. "This is a fine mess you've gotten us into, Drew."
Coming Tuesday: Part 2, "The Ex Casts a Hex"
ABOUT THIS SERIES
A Philadelphia media tradition continues: From 1997 to 2007, The Inquirer published a Christmas story by Chris Satullo and artist Tony Auth, at that time the Editorial Board editor and cartoonist, who continued it at WHYY from 2009 to 2014. This year, Satullo teams with staff artist Rob Tornoe. EndText