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“The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder” begins previews tonight at Boston Court

July 22, 2010

It’s one thing to read a dictionary (as if anyone actually ‘reads’ one these days). It’s wholly another to write one. Yet the Oxford English Dictionary had to come from somewhere, and Moby Pomerance explores its inception in “The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder” at Boston Court.

Melanie Lora Meltzer

James Murray is old and cranky, working in the scriptorium, more a garden shed, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of slips of paper, each holding the key to yet another entry. His non-historical daughter, Jane, appears in the play, both as caretaker and facilitator. And yet more.

Melanie Lora explains Jane’s life, up to this moment, when she is 24. “She has an older brother, Paul. He leaves when Jane is 16. Since then Jane has been in charge of writing this dictionary with her father.”

And Jane essentially runs the operation of writing the OED. “She can use her two dozen languages and all the knowledge she’s amassed since she was a child in this gargantuan intellectual task. She can speak in any words she likes, she can discuss Greek translations. She can live in the world that, outside of these rooms, she would not be encouraged or respected for inhabiting. She adores having the mind she has and needs to be able to use it not just for herself, but to do great work – at home she can; out in the world it’s questionable. However, it’s oppressive and confined and suffocating to have no life outside the scriptorium and to care for and manage a man as single-focused and dependent as her father. That’s what’s kept her there all this time.”

Lora says you get the sense they’ve tried to hire various people to help but no one lasts long because “Jane and her father are such intense people to be around.”

Very intense. “They both love language. There’s no direct emotional tie between the words they use and the feelings they have for each other, but the words they choose and the way they test each other, schoolmaster each other, goad each other, all prove to be their expression of love. And when they want to go after each other they do so through insults a paragraph long.

The late 1800s is not yet a time, particularly in Britain, where a woman is welcomed in the workplace. “For Jane,” Lora says, “this is the only place she can be the brilliant person she is and do the work she’s capable of doing.”

So what’s a girl to do?

“Jane truly wants to get out in the world, find a job where she can be as brilliant and expressive as she is and have a life – a life outside these four walls.”

To compound her unquenchable quest to leave, her brother comes home from traveling the world as a cartographer. “Jane imagines what he’s been seeing and doing, what he’s gotten to touch, who he’s gotten to talk to, what kind of winds he’s felt on his face. She’s had none of that. I mean, sure, she’s taken trips to London, for example, but never on her own terms. Never. And now he’s back – and she’s excited that Paul could become her ticket for getting out.”

Lora says this has been one of her most challenging roles. “Not because I didn’t identify with Jane, but because I did. There’s the Englishness of it and the difference between the British sensibility and American sensibility in expressing emotions. And in that time period, it was so different. So, it’s been challenging for me to find that balance between all that she has going on underneath – and she has so much going on. There’s so much that she wants from her life, and I have to cover that with this light, witty, feminine banter.”

It’s not unlike, Lora says, what she experienced growing up in the South. “Our director, John [Langs] and I were talking about how Southern women can smile while they’re poisoning you (laughs). My mom always used the phrase, ‘Still waters run deep,’ and you have no idea what’s going on until they crack.”

For Lora to do a period piece, she relied first on literary and historical works, not dictionaries. “I wanted to identify with what was going on at the time – what we always do as actors – looking for what that emotional hook. And there are things in my own life I can compare to, and a lot in my imagination, as well. And going back into that period of Bronte and Browning and Hardy, the literature of that time, inspired me a lot. The other challenge is to just fly across the language and use the melody of the dialect, the way the English speak. “It’s not,” she says, “just a technicality with her, it’s key to how she expresses herself. Getting really facile with those verbal melodies and sounds has been a terrific challenge.”

Lora anchors herself in the fact that women at that time could not easily earn money for themselves. “That’s the easiest thing to forget, living when and where I do. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to have so few options. But really? I would rather ride a horse to get someplace than drive on the 10! My sister and I still write pen letters to each other and everyone looks at us like we’re crazy.”

Thursday July 22, 2010 – Sunday August 29, 2010 from 8:00pm – 4:00pm

Theatre @ Boston Court

70 N. Mentor Avenue at Boston Court
Pasadena, California 91116 Get Directions

The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Co. Present
The World Premiere of
The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder
By Moby Pomerance
Directed by John Langs
Previews July 22 – July 30
Opening July 31

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Ed O'Donnooghue permalink
    August 2, 2010 10:06 am

    Mel has been a great performer since her first step on the stage.

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