Given at her memorial, 2007
Hi. I’m Marsha Norman. I loved Anne Pitoniak. I would not be half the human I am now, or maybe not even a writer now if it weren’t for Annie. I certainly wouldn’t have written ‘night, Mother if I hadn’t had her to write it for. I might even have left the theatre.. But there she was, so here I am. From the beginning, it seemed like she walked into my life to get me to be brave, and act right and do what I was supposed to do. So I will try to talk about her today without falling apart. But I don’t want to talk about how I learned to write for actors by watching her. I don’t want to talk about what a genius actor she was. Everybody in this room knows that she had no equal. None. So I’ll just talk about how she got in my head and what happened to us after that.
I first met Annie in Louisville on the first day of the rehearsal for my first play, Getting Out. It was Anne’s first day, too, back in the theatre after a life in…life. She was playing the role of Arlene’s horrible mother, the mother who cared more about how clean the apartment was, than the feelings of the daughter who had just gotten out of prison. I hated this Mother, of course, being a very thinly veiled version of my own mother. But Anne got into this character’s skin, and portrayed her with a fierce exhaustion that spoke not just to the audience and the critics, but to me. She actually showed me my mother from the other side, from the side that didn’t so much hate me as feel threatened by me. Annie and I never talked about this. She just knew she was my good mother, the one I wanted badly enough to write her, the one who was fighting for me, regardless of how maddening and mean she seemed. So it was more than a writer/actor relationship from the beginning.
One day in rehearsal, I said to Jon Jory, looking at Annie, that I wanted to write another play for her, I wanted her to be play this woman I kept seeing at the Laundromat in the middle of the night. I’d be coming home from the theatre bar, and this woman would be standing at the washing machine at Third and Oak. That play has the line everybody always says is the best one I’ve written. The woman is talking about how one day after her husband died, she was cleaning out the basement, and she found their beachball. To tell the truth, I didn’t so much write the line as hear Annie say it in my head and write it down. The woman says, “I can’t let the air out of it. That’s his breath in there.” That sounds like Annie, doesn’t it.
It was the same with ‘night, Mother. I had known the story of the play for a long time, but I thought I wouldn’t have to write it. I thought I could just write a musical, like I always wanted to, so I moved to New York and got a job, but… then I got fired from that project, and that made me mad enough at the theatre to actually think about writing that suicide play. And there was one line I kept hearing from the beginning, in Annie’s voice. And I knew if she could say that terrible line, and I knew she could, then I could write that play.
The line is toward the end of the play. Jessie, who has thought about this way too long, if that reminds you of anybody, is explaining to her mother why she has to kill herself.
Jessie says, “So the only reason to stay would be to keep you company, and that’s not reason enough because I’m not very good company. Am I.”
Here’s the hard line. Mama has to say, “No. And neither am I.” Without even blinking, Annie said that line in my living room when I hadn’t even finished writing the play, and she said it in Boston and on Broadway and in my head for the rest of my life When I watched from the back of the house, I knew what she was doing, willingly standing in for my real mother, trying to keep me alive. And again, we didn’t talk about it. Annie was one of the few people who never asked me where the play came from. Because she knew. She was the only one who really knew. And that made me feel safe, finally, and understood. Which is rare in life, and the greatest of the gifts between friends.
I know you’re supposed to tell funny stories at memorials. I hope somebody does that. I don’t have any funny stories to tell about her. Except when I left her apartment, having seen her for what would turn out to be the last time, I was in a kind of little play that she would’ve been great in. Maybe it was even her. I was at the entrance to the FDR at 96th street and I was crying about Annie, and my car kind of drifted forward and bumped into the car in front of me. And we got out, and I said how sorry I was, and I saw that she was crying too, so I said I was sorry some more, but I had just come from visiting with a friend who was dying, and asked her if she would just take all the cash I had and get her bumper repainted instead of calling the police and making all of the rest of the people blow their horns at us. She wiped her eyes, looked at the bumper, tested her trunk to see if it opened and said she was on her way to see a dying friend too, and yes, she would take all my cash. So I gave her, I don’t know, two hundred dollars and we let it go at that. Doesn’t that seem like Annie paying me a visit on her way out? It didn’t at the time, but it does now.
I’m sorry I wasn’t Annie’s actual child. But I am grateful I got to be a sort of love child of hers, in the gang of people she watched over. I’m sorry I didn’t write more plays for her, though that wouldn’t have made this any easier. I guess it all comes own to some kind of sad lucky feeling, which is what life feels like more and more to me. And the sad part is just about unbearable. But the lucky part is really good. And in this case, the luck is having the chance to say out loud in my own voice what somebody meant to me, which in the case of Anne Pitoniak, was the whole world.