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Marquicia Dominguez, Tom Fraser.

All Out Of Second Chances

In summer 2015, Pacific Play Company invited me to curate & write for two separate evenings of short plays. The second one was called Tall Tales Of The Unnatural Frontier, which ran Dec 4-18, 2015. Keileen Conway Blanchard, Juliet Waller Pruzan, Morgan Ludlow, Jennifer Roberts and I contributed thirteen original plays, using the following marketing copy as a loose thematic guide before we started writing:

Tall Tales of the Unnatural Frontier is a shadowy slice of dark Americana, exploring a time when the countryís founding ideals were still waiting for their time to truly flower - and a time when the sway of the rational intellect had yet to reach all parts of a land steeped in folklore and legend. Civilization would someday tame the unnatural frontier - and the wanderers who made it their home - but not before a few extremely tall tales seared their way into our nationís collective subconscious memory, whispered around the dying campfire of an elusive moment in history.

My contribution to the evening was a play called All Out Of Second Chances. The play was later produced at Theatre Roulette 2017 by MadLab in Columbus, OH; and will be produced in November 2019 by Bennington Community Theater in Bennington, VT.

The play opens with the stage split between two areas: a small area in a corner of the stage, where MARGARET addresses the audience; and a larger playing area with a bench where CHARLOTTE faces HENRY, with several awkward feet of distance between them.

MARGARET: Mama was on her deathbed when she finally told me the story of how she met Father.

HENRY: Are you Miss Charlotte Atherton?

CHARLOTTE: I am. Mr. Whitford I hope?

HENRY: Yes. Call me Henry. Pause. Iím delighted to finally meet you. Pause. Your beauty exceeds the daguerreotype that accompanied your first letter. The difference is striking.

CHARLOTTE: I was practically a child in that portrait. And the chemist who developed it was obviously an amateur. Pause. But I thank you for your kind observation.

MARGARET: They met for the first time at the train station in Sacramento. Mama had taken trains all the way from Philadelphia to be wed to a man she had never met, at the urging of her own father.

CHARLOTTE: I expect my familyís investment in your enterprise has arrived via wire transfer by now?

HENRY: IÖ yes it has. And more importantly, your most recent letter to me arrived mere days ago. He produces the letter from his coat pocket. You amaze me with your articulate disposition. I do feel Iíve developed quite an affinity for you, even across this distance, thanks to your eloquence and sincerity.

CHARLOTTE produces a few letters from her handbag: You spun a few tales yourself.

MARGARET: I was shocked at first. I thought arranged marriages died out in the dark ages. But Mama insisted she always had a choice. I grew up learning to read by sounding out the letters Mama sent to Father before she came to Sacramento, and you can hear the excitement in her voice. Talking herself into it, I reckon, but she seemed plenty smart and had her eyes open.

HENRY: Iíll see to your luggage and bring the carriage around to pick you up. A green steamer trunk will be yours, if I recall?

CHARLOTTE: Yes. And youíll also be looking for a plain, cherry wood crate. Rather large Iím afraid, and probably heavy. The porter will know exactly which crate if you ask him. Itíll be the crate with the dead body of a woman inside.

HENRY: Iím sorry?

CHARLOTTE: She sat next to me for days, from Council Bluffs all the way here. I guess we became friends of a sort. Seemed like she was.... on the run from some bad fortune, back wherever she called home. All out of second chances, she said. Spent her last nickel on a train ticket to California, said she wanted to start all over with some lonely shopkeeper who might like a grateful woman in his kitchen and his bed. But I guess she was sick from the start, maybe kidding herself it wasnít true even if she never could stop coughing. One morning in Nevada, she didnít wake for breakfast.

HENRY: I see. We can try to telegraph her family.

CHARLOTTE: Her family disowned her. No oneís waiting for her. Conductor said Union Pacific would have her body interred in an unmarked grave, but I refused to accept that she should suffer such a final indignity. Will you help me arrange for a proper burial? A testament to a hard, short life that made a small mark on me at least? Pause. Whatís wrong?

HENRY: Nothingís wrong, I simplyÖ did not expect your compassion to exceed my expectations so rapidly. We can bury her in my familyís plot, with a proper ceremony and a marble headstone. What was her name?

CHARLOTTE: You knowÖ honestly I canít remember.

Charlotte crosses to Henryís side, and the two of them now face an older woman who has just arrived, MILLICENT ATHERTON. She carries a small suitcase.

MARGARET: Years went by, and the way Mama tells it, they got lucky - they actually fell in love. Took time and effort, but it wasnít make believe. Mama sent letters home every month, she said. Wanted her parents to know they did the right thing by her, and they shouldnít worry. But then one day she got word that her father had died suddenly of a heart attack, and would she come back for the funeral. And she did not go back for the funeral. And more years went by, and her mother fell on hard times, even with the proceeds from their investment that we sent her every month, and she lost her family manor to the debt collector, and finally, one day Mama found herself back at the Sacramento train station.

CHARLOTTE: Mother. This is quite a surprise.

MILLICENT: I imagine thatís true.

CHARLOTTE: Iím so pleased youíre here.

Charlotte hugs Millicent quite awkwardly.

CHARLOTTE: Mother, this is Henry.

HENRY: Mrs. Atherton, Iím terribly sorry for your loss. And Iím sorry we couldnít attend the funeral. I was battling pneumonia at the time and the physician insisted I remain in bed.

MILLICENT: Mr. Whitford, I understand your absence perfectly well - no need to invent stories.

HENRY: I, ah - yes, well, shall I fetch your luggage from the baggage car?

MILLICENT: This suitcase will be everything.

HENRY: I see. He takes the suitcase from Millicent. You ladies wait here in the shade. Iíll bring the carriage around.

CHARLOTTE: We can walk with you, Henry-

HENRY: Nonsense, letís keep your motherís finery out of the muddy streets as long as we can, dear. You two catch up, and Iíll be back in just a few minutes.

Henry exits. Millicent and Charlotte eye each other warily.

CHARLOTTE: Youíre welcome to stay with us as long as you like. We prepared the guest room for you - itís quite sumptuous.

MILLICENT: Whereís my daughter?

CHARLOTTE: Henryís valet is an excellent chef. Weíll be having a feast tonight to celebrate your arrival.

MILLICENT: I asked you a question.

CHARLOTTE: I invited some of the ladies from the church to join us. Iím sure theyíll all be excited to hear the latest gossip from the east-

MILLICENT: What happened to my daughter?

CHARLOTTE: She died on the train, Mrs. Atherton. Somewhere in Nevada. When Henry goes to work tomorrow, we can visit her grave if you like.

MILLICENT: What did you do to her?

CHARLOTTE: Kept her company in her last frightened days on Earth. Did you know she was sick when she left Philadelphia?

Millicent is hit with grief, sits slowly on the bench.

MILLICENT: Did she suffer?

CHARLOTTE: I donít know. I was asleep in my seat next to her that night.

MILLICENT: So she wasnít alone.

CHARLOTTE: Not more so than usual. Pause. Your daughter and I spent many long hours in conversation on that train. I learned all about her pending wedding to a man her father wanted to impress. But she showed me Henryís letters to her, and you could see he was a sweet man. And she clearly poured her little soul into those letters she sent to Henry. He was half in love with her already when I stepped off the train and took her place in the world.

MILLICENT: You canít ever take her place.

CHARLOTTE: I suppose not. But you know, she never expected to see you again as long as she lived. I thought it was a small kindness, writing you letters from her so that you could drift off into your old age believing the illusion that your daughter was happy. And alive.

MILLICENT: Thatís how I knew something had happened. My daughter could never have written those letters you sent.

CHARLOTTE: I studied the letters she wrote to Henry. I know I captured her pen and her voice.

MILLICENT: Ha. She could barely spell. I wrote those letters myself. Henry was half in love with an illusion of my daughter that I created from scratch. And there you were to complete the picture. Pause. Where did you come from?

CHARLOTTE: I wasÖ on the run from some bad fortune back home. All out of second chances. Or so I thought. Pause. Will you tell Henry?

MILLICENT: Why break a good manís heart? Pause. When can I meet my granddaughter?

Lights dim on Charlotte and Millicent. As Margaret speaks, Millicent exits.

MARGARET: Grandma Millie stayed with us for a couple years before she died, and I was none the wiser. I got married and had a few children. We stayed in Sacramento to help run the family business. Father was more than a few years older than Mama and he lost his health sooner than anyone would have liked. We buried him next to Charlotte - the real Charlotte. And when Mama finished telling me that incredible story, there was one big question burning on my brain. Turns to face Charlotte. If youíre not Charlotte Atherton, whatís your real name?

CHARLOTTE: You knowÖ honestly I canít remember.


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