Dr. Strangelove vs. Madame Wadsworth

I published this several years ago and sadly found reason to pull it from the archive today, upon learning that my high school drama teacher, Sarah Wadsworth, has, according to the Press Democrat, “suffered an aneurism that doctors say has left her brain dead.” Some of my Petaluma cronies might remember that she and I were briefly at odds over a stage-adaptation of Dr. Strangelove. This piece recounts a bit of the debacle and a side of the story I didn’t learn until 20 years later…

Back in the 80s, the freaks, vampires, would-be bohemians and other malcontents who comprised our drama club were less concerned about getting shoved into a locker than we were about getting nuked.

It wasn’t until I discovered Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that I finally found a satiric salvo for my anxieties. At 14, I was gawky high school freshman, who bore a passing resemblance to the title character due to my peroxided curls and John Lennon-style sunglasses. Coupled with a certain sartorial finesse (read: the ability to lift second-hand suit coats from thrift stores), I considered myself a passable simulacrum of the character. One semester, Madame Wadsworth, then both the French and drama teacher, generously permitted some cronies and I to explore our atomic qualms onstage in our own abbreviated redux of the Kubrick film. If an actual atom bomb had gone off, we all might have fared better.

Nearly 20 years later, I revisited Petaluma High to discuss with Madame how the production resulted in me being kicked out of school.

“I seem to recall we had a few things added to that scene,” Wadsworth said in a leading manner. Then she paused, set her jaw and said, “It was the rubber chicken.”

Our interpretation revisited the final war room scene — the doomsday device was about to be detonated and an intern character created for my pal Gabe Faur-Brac announced “Wait! I can’t die yet, I’m still a virgin!” We all were, but with Faur-Brac’s nervous demeanor and then-fashion sense it seemed particularly evident (he eventually grew into a handsome theater professional in New York City and has certainly rectified the situation). The line got an easy laugh from the teenage set, which turned into a roar when I produced a rubber chicken from my coat, tossed it to Faur-Brac. I will not conjecture here what this moment meant to either the actor or the audience, but suffice it to say, I was in trouble.

“I had no idea the rubber chicken was coming,” Wadsworth recalled shaking her head. “That wasn’t planned. It was unbelievable. There was nothing I could say that would make you think ‘Maybe, this is not appropriate.’ You just did not get it.”

What we did get was suspended from school for a week — a whole passel of us (Gabe, Carl, Justin — others surely). This was a small price to pay for the infamy that I played to great social advantage until I dropped out a year later to sidestep an expulsion that had loomed since discovering theater-of-the-absurd. It was only when I visited Madame that I learned that she too had been reprimanded.

“I had only been here two years, so I was still making sure I wasn’t getting my ass kicked out of here,” she recalled. That’s when I realized for the first time that she was only in her 20s when my my pals and pulled our stunt — a ribald act of juvenalia, which given our rural, small town and the conservative cultural climate of the mid-80s, could very well have cost Madame her job.

At 34-years-old, it finally occurred to me to apologize. She accepted. We laughed. I wished I had Gabe’s chicken with me.

Later, we discussed the cyclical nature of life, which I had observed weeks prior while driving through Marin County. Tremulously pinching the shoulder of Sir Francis Drake Blvd., I spied a sandwich board in front of Drake High that read “The Drake Theatre Ensemble presents Dr. Strangelove.”

I bought a ticket and was soon enthralled by a cavalcade of about 40 teenagers reenacting the film. Their Dr. Strangelove, a young woman, was excellent as was most of their rambunctious production. It made me think, however, that at the age that my pals and I were chasing skirts in the graveyard, these kids were watching the World Trade Center reduced to cinders. No wonder Dr. Strangelove was back, his leather-clad hand groping the scenery for something, anything to hang on to.

My own Strangelove incident has proven seminal in my personal mythology and I’ve often revisited it, admittedly making nips and tucks or embellishing it as the moment (or booze) seemed to require. Sure, it’s kind of pathetic but no more than the football star recounting some fateful touchdown.

So much of our life scripts are authored in adolescence and often when we’re not paying attention. Back then, I could barely see above the collar of my trench coat let alone my frothing ego, so it was only recently when I realized that, no matter how I spun the heroic tale of having been suspended for my art, there has always been a sort of a spiritual co-author I’ve left uncredited… The one who contributed the real punchline to the story (sans poultry, of course); the one who knew that a particular nervy lad might eventually grow up and someday be grateful for the guidance of a teacher he had cast as the bad guy in his school boy drama. It’s a bit overdue but “Brava, Madame Wadsworth. Brava.”

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