For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe
When Lily Tomlin performed The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe for the first time in the mid-80s, I was 14 years old. I hear that this play and her performances of it were run-away hits, winning all the big awards in 1985. Some stories even relate to how audience members' lives were changed after seeing this play. But, for me at 14, I didn't hear about it. I cared only about losing my virginity soon. And I only knew Ms. Tomlin as Edith Ann in that oversized rocking chair, spitting out raspberries with her tongue on the guest spot appearances she did on Sesame Street (or was it Saturday Night Live?).
By the time I was 23 and attending Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), I had come to adore any performance by Lily Tomlin. Her talent awed me. She could do no wrong (still can't!). Re-runs of Laugh-In had come around by then, she had cracked me up in All Of Me with Steve Martin, and since I worked with little kids a lot, I especially appreciated her gig on The Magic School Bus as Ms. Frizzle!
One day at the CMU library, I was browsing around, feeling a little down, fed up with the gray and rain of Pittsburgh winters. So I decided to check out a book that was on reserve for one of my feminist classes. That book was Jane Wagner's play The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe. When I saw the photos of Lily Tomlin in those glossy middle pages of the book, I freaked! I went immediately to the film center on campus and settled in to watch the video tape of Lily in action as Trudy.
To say that this play changed my whole view of life is an understatement at best. I sat in the little film center cubical with my headphones on, staring at the screen after the tape ended. This sudden sense of loss swept over me as I realized that I had missed the 1985 chance to see Tomlin do this play live. Born too late. The vid was fab, but the sorrow of missing her in action, in a dark theater, live, right in front of me-- the sorrow was overwhelming.
Flash forward to the year 2000: Living in Seattle with my husband, mourning the death of my son, overwhelmed by a real life sorrow that is inexplicable. This summer I truly reveled in a visit from my mother. She and I have finally found each other on people-terms instead of that combative mother-daughter level that occupies so much family life. She came because she'd been worried about me since my son died. She was afraid (I think, still is afraid) I'd jump out an open window instead of walking past it. I didn't tell her that sometimes I, too, am afraid that I'll jump. It's impossible to explain how meaningless Life is after your child dies. Just believe me that it all seems rather pointless and very much like an exercise in stupidity.
Anyway, my mom and I spent a day downtown at Pike Place Market in Seattle at a little coffee shop on the corner with cold drinks, bare feet, and the good window seats. A bus went by the window just as many busses had that day. But this particular bus was different. This bus had a huge billboard on the side of it for Seattle Repertory Theater, and Lily Tomlin's face was smiling that impossible smile, and Jane Wagner's name was bolded in all capital letters. My heart stopped! What?!? No! Was it possible!!!?
Needless to say, once my mother and I got back to my house, I dashed for the computer. Immediately I found the Seattle Rep website and sure enough, there it was! The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe was back!!! Here was my chance. I would finally see her live as Trudy.
My husband and I got tickets for a mid-September showing. As the day drew near, I got more and more excited. When the day arrived, I was a complete basket case, just waiting for the hours to pass before we could head out for the theater. As we approached the theater that night, I was so nervous and excited. My palms were sweaty. My husband had no idea what the play was about, so he was unsure of what to expect. We entered the theater and went up to our balcony seats (best seats in the house!) and then the lights began to dim.
There was Lily. And a simple black stage. Lily, too, was dressed in all black. Even the umbrella hat was imaginary-- but clear as a bell with the help of the sound person! Most of the props were sound effects-- all stunning, perfectly timed, and amazing! Right away people were clapping and laughing. And they kept laughing. My husband was laughing-- I was relieved that he was really enjoying it. The lighting was amazing-- the lighting IS the set of the play! She was amazing-- Lily Tomlin was sooooo freaking amazing. All of it was amazing!
And I sat in my seat and cried.
Tears, tears, tears, and some more tears came as soon as the lights dimmed. I sobbed while people laughed, while Trudy showed her space chums the difference between Campbell's soup and Worhol's painting, while Agnus screamed "I'm Different!" I tried to hide my tears during the short intermission, but when the lights dimmed for the second act, I sobbed again. Sobbed when Trudy told Howard to hide the condiments, when the hooker yelled at Agnus from the car, when Lyn told of suicide by macramé. I sobbed and sobbed. And at the end of the play when the lights went up, I kept crying. I didn't even try to hide the tears like I had at intermission, but instead just let them roll and roll.
My husband and I stayed in the theater till everyone was gone. We watched the stage go dark. We wondered how Lily Tomlin got to be so amazing, how Jane Wagner got to be so amazing. We left saying that we wanted to see it again, and sad knowing that the tickets were all gone for this run-- or if there were tickets left, we couldn't really afford to buy them anyway as even the balcony seats are going for a good chunk of change.
But it doesn't matter. My life is changed again (another understatement).
Let's put it this way:
If you don't get the chance
to see Lily do Trudy live,