An Excerpt From...
by Renee Ryan
The Grand Opera House, Chicago, Illinois, 1883
Shakespeare’s delightful comedy Twelfth Night progressed toward its dramatic conclusion as planned. Lies were exposed with the perfect blend of surprise, satisfaction and charm. Truths unfolded at a precise, believable pace.
Usually, Hannah Southerland loved the challenge of translating every nuance and plot twist found on paper into a memorable performance on stage. But as tonight’s final act drew to a close she found herself wondering if art didn’t imitate life a bit too closely, at least in her case.
Mistaken identity? Twins separated by misfortune? A woman in disguise from her true nature?
Uncanny, really. Peculiar.
With nothing left to do but take her bows, Hannah stood poised in the shadows, watching the last moments of the play. The only sign of her growing unease came in the rhythmic tick-tick of her pulse and the slight shake of her hands. Otherwise, she held herself rock still, letting the sound of actors reciting their lines, and the rustle of patrons shifting in their seats, echo in her ears and pulse through her blood.
These moments, when fantasy blurred into reality, were why she’d first pursued the stage five years ago. She’d craved the escape. Needed it as much as breath itself. In the end, she had found a new home with a large family to love her as her own had never been able to do.
Unwanted memories slid into her mind, playing out as strangely real as the last moments of the play. She’d been so afraid that dark, wintry night when her father had banished her from his home. All because she had played a well-rehearsed role, one she would never take on again.
In the ensuing years since her exile, Hannah had discovered a more powerful force than fear. Faith.
Now, if only her twin sister could find the same peace in Christ that she had.
With that thought, Hannah leaned slightly forward, her eyes searching for the woman positioned off the opposite end of the stage. There she stood, a mirror image of Hannah, yet profoundly different. It was the look in her eyes that set Rachel apart from Hannah, the startling combination of purity and audacity that had turned the heads of many unsuspecting men.
Rachel’s presence at the theater tonight evoked a myriad of emotions -- happiness that Rachel had left her fiancé barely a month before the wedding for the sole purpose of reconnecting with her estranged sister. Disappointment that Hannah’s father had chosen not to come with Rachel. Hannah had hoped that after five years the venerable Reverend Thomas Southerland could find it in his heart to forgive her.
As Hannah had forgiven Rachel.
If, during her sister’s brief stay, Hannah could teach Rachel about true accountability, maybe, maybe, Hannah could move on with her life. Without the guilt. Without the burden.
Without the shame.
Her hands started to shake harder, threatening her outward calm. A deep, driving urge to run away washed through her. Instead of giving in to the cowardice, Hannah threaded her fingers together and clutched her palms tightly against one another. In this mood she could feel the edgy nerves of her fellow actors, the underlying desperation to deliver the perfect performance.
Unable to bear their emotions along with her own unsettled ones, she shifted her gaze toward the audience. Flickering light illuminated the theater, casting a golden glow over tonight’s patrons.
Hannah squinted deep into the shadows until her gaze focused. Countless faces stared at the stage with the kind of rapt attention that widened the eyes and slackened the jaws.
As expensive and wealthy went, the affluent men and women viewing tonight’s closing performance had no rivals. Except, perhaps in London. And like those patrons of the British Theater, they fully accepted the illusion of true love found in the midst of deception.
Hannah took a deep breath and turned her attention back to the stage.
At last, the actor playing the clown recited his final line and made his exit. A hushed pause filled the theater. Like waking from a lovely dream, eyes slowly blinked and then...
The applause thundered, passing through shadow, to light, to empty stage.
The curtain began its slow descent, but not before the audience played its own part in the production and surged to its feet. The sound of their approval rumbled past the velvet folds as the soft thud of the thick, heavy material landed on the stage floor.
Chaos instantly erupted behind the delicate veil between audience and actor.
“Places, everyone,” yelled the director. He turned to Hannah and motioned her forward.
Hannah wove her way through the labyrinth of rushing humanity, gliding toward her spot in the center of the troupe. She pushed back an unexpected flash of trepidation -- one she hadn’t felt since that terrible night of her banishment -- and moved with the liquid grace born from tedious hours of practice, practice, practice. Each step required concentration, control, and commitment. The kind that set Hannah apart from her other, more talented contemporaries.
Once in place, Hannah allowed the soft buzz of excited chatter to drift around her as she waited for her fellow players to join her. She rubbed her tongue across her teeth, a nervous gesture leftover from childhood, before turning her head to seek out her sister once more.
Rachel stood watching the commotion with the wide-eyed innocence that had led her to be termed the “good” twin. But as with the play just performed, the outward impression was pure illusion.
Hannah was suddenly jostled by the actor on her left, jerking her attention back to the drawn curtain. Her hair swung out with the swift gesture, curved under her chin, then settled.
With a flick of her wrist, Hannah shifted the ebony mass of curls behind her back. Thoughts of her sister were not so easily set aside. However, right now, Hannah needed to concentrate on the other, equally disturbing emotions warring inside her.
Lord, fill me with a humble heart.
How easy it would be to fall for the adoration displayed inside the deafening applause seeping through the velvet barrier. To believe the praise was for her alone. To give into the temptation of accepting glory for a gift that was merely on loan to her from her heavenly Father.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Hannah pressed her lips together. Her mentor, Patience O’Toole, had taught her how to focus on being a light in the dark world of theater -- a modern day Babylon that required the resolve of Daniel and the courage of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to keep selfish ambition at bay.
How she missed the grounding influence of Patience and her flamboyant husband, Reginald. The surrogate parents who, with the perfect blend of Christian grace and earthly truth, had helped boost Hannah’s broken confidence and heal her battered heart.
With a shake of her head, Hannah forced her mind on the present and smiled at her astonishingly handsome co-star as he swept into view.
Golden, spectacular, larger than life, Tyler O’Toole -- Patience and Reginald’s youngest son -- never missed an opportunity to make an entrance. Although likeable and charming, Tyler had his own agenda in life. Three priorities ruled his actions. Amusement. Pleasure. And, lest she forget, merriment. Unlike the rest of his siblings, Tyler would always be a selfish boy at heart.
“You were breathtaking tonight, my dear.” His voice was as dramatic as the rest of him, a husky baritone that carried to the last row in any theater.
Prepared to offer her own congratulations, Hannah looked up at his chiseled, beautiful face. He was the brother she’d never had, the one member of the troupe -- other than his mother and father -- who had worked tirelessly with Hannah to perfect her stage presence. In spite of his many faults, and there were many, Hannah couldn’t help but admire the man. Tyler O’Toole was a brilliant performer.
Tonight had been no exception.
But before she could compliment his performance, he reached for her hand, bent at the waist and dropped a kiss onto her knuckles. The gesture was pure Tyler Bartholomew O’Toole, sincerity wrapped inside an insincere, theatrical flourish.
He rose slowly, deliberately, and then sent her a suave, half-smile that seemed to say: But, truly, wasn’t I equally brilliant?
Hannah lifted a single eyebrow. “Tyler, you-- ” She broke off, realizing she’d already lost his wavering attention.
Against her better judgment, she followed his gaze with her own -- across the stage, past the rest of the hurrying cast, straight to the spot where her twin sister stood a little off to one side.
Rachel stared back at Tyler, giving him the serene, artful smile that had brought several men to their knees. Standing separate from the cast and crew, with a single beam of light casting a soft glow around her, Rachel looked like a beautiful, mysterious siren calling to any man willing to fall for her fantasy.
Tyler’s answering sigh came out pitiful, a tiny bit miserable and yet, somehow...calculating. In the next moment he unleashed his own secret weapon, the careless wink that had been practiced and perfected over the years. And had left its own destructive wake along the way.
Hannah stared at the two in disbelief, a knot of anxiety tightening her stomach.
Different man. Same sister.
One perfect disaster in the making.
And somehow, someway, Hannah would be the one to bear the consequences. Just like last time. Just like every time.
She should have realized when she’d introduced the two yesterday she’d been putting an open flame to a haystack.
No. No, no, no. Hannah had spent too many years taking the blame for her twin sister’s indiscretions, and too many months watching Tyler break women’s hearts to hold her tongue now. “Tyler, stay away from my sister. Neither of you has any idea what sort of trouble you’re flirting with.”
Her words came out flat, hard, and -- unfortunately for them all -- fell on unhearing ears.
“Stay away from that gorgeous, stunning creature? You demand the impossible, Hannah darling,” Tyler said. “Rachel’s smiles slay me, and her voice is sweeter than any angel.”
Clearly oblivious to the tension growing between their two leads, the other actors continued scrambling into place.
“Don’t Tyler.” Pressure built in Hannah’s chest, stealing her breath and drying out her throat. “Just ... don’t.”
“Why my dear girl, you sound quite discouraging. One might start to think you disapprove.”
A familiar, albeit unwanted, affection broke past Hannah’s annoyance. Tyler had the kind of droll humor that reared at the most inappropriate of times and invariably took the sting out of an uncomfortable situation. It was hard to dislike a man who was as fully aware of his faults as his talents. Even if he used both to his full advantage whenever the occasion suited him.
Well tonight, where too many lives might be harmed, Hannah could not -- would not -- allow a budding flirtation to turn into something more destructive. “Tyler, you must listen and take heed. She’s--”
A groan from the rigging stopped Hannah in mid-sentence and had both Tyler and her turning toward the curtain to fulfill their final duty of the night.
Conversation among the rest of the cast halted as well.
A few more seconds of rope grinding to metal and the curtain began to rise. The audience leaned forward, eager to get a better look at the actors. With every inch of the curtain’s ascent, their palms pounded wildly together, again and again and again. Louder and louder and louder.
Hannah slid a glance at Tyler. With a sly grin lifting the corners of his lips, he reached out and twined his fingers through hers. Together they raised their joined hands in the air then bent into a well-rehearsed bow.
Rising first, Hannah shot a quick slash of teeth at Tyler, and then leaned forward again. They repeated the process until the applause died to a mere spattering.
As the curtain made its final descent on the Chicago production of Shakespeare’s delicious comedy, Hannah feared a tragedy far worse than any fictional tale was already in the making.
With another warning perched on her lips, Hannah turned to Tyler, but she only caught the wild flourish of coattails as he spun in the direction where Rachel stood.
“Tyler, wait. She’s-- ”
He dismissed her with a careless flick of his wrist.
Hannah lifted onto her toes to see past the other actors. “Rachel,” she called out. “You can’t. You’re-- ”
But her sister shifted to her left, literally turning her deaf ear in Hannah’s direction. It was an old trick of Rachel’s, a hard kick aimed straight at Hannah’s guilt, an open defiance that did not bode well for a reasonable end to the escalating situation.
Nevertheless, Hannah set out after Rachel and Tyler. The two quickly disappeared behind a side curtain. The backstage area was already filled with commotion, making it difficult for Hannah to see precisely which direction they had taken.
After several long minutes of searching, Hannah thought she saw two shadowy figures leave the building, but prayed her riotous imagination had taken over her logic.
There was one dreadful hope left.
Shifting direction, Hannah turned toward Tyler’s dressing room. She’d only taken two steps when one of the crew materialized in her path. “Hannah, your sister told me to give you this after tonight’s production.”
He pressed a piece of paper against her palm, then turned back to assist the stage manager in breaking down the set.
Hannah squinted toward the backstage door then looked down at the small, folded parchment in her hand. A foreboding filled her and a hard knot formed in the pit of her stomach.
She unfolded the note with trembling fingers. Her sister’s looping script flowed through a single sentence.
Be happy for us.
“Oh, please, please, not again.”