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And That’s the Truth: An Evening with Lily Tomlin

March 25, 2010

Overture Hall was filled to near capacity Wednesday night as Lily Tomlin took the stage. The evening got off to a rather bumpy start as the video featuring highlights from Tomlin’s career broke up into little digital squares then froze. The technicians fixed whatever was wrong, but as Tomlin appeared on stage, she was in an obvious agitated state—telling the audience how she worries all the time about trivialities such as “fat-free half and half” and “if the love of money is the root of all evil, will the United States be okay now that it’s broke?” She appeared to be suffering from a springtime cold, as she coughed occasionally and her voice sounded a little rough.

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Tomlin brought to life some characters that have been around for a long time. Ernestine, the telephone company operator (“We don’t care. We don’t have to.”) who has changed careers and is now a claims adjustor for the fictitious “Controlled Health Insurance Corp”. As Ernestine, Tomlin snorted her way through lines such as “And you thought ‘HMO’ stood for ‘Help Me Out’!”

In addition to Ernestine, the audience was treated to a visit from Lucille, the woman who secretly eats erasers and confessed that she had eaten 20 pencil erasers a day, but her greatest pleasure was eating a brand new “Gum eraser with the corners still sharp.” As the story unfolds, Lucille tells of her rehab, kneeling on the floor before the psychiatrist, begging for help—and then eating his crepe soles.

Tomlin enacted the characters Trudy and Judith Beasley. Trudy, the somewhat befuddled street person marched back and forth across the stage pulling the imaginary shopping cart telling the audience that people wondered why she kept all that old junk. Her question was why did people buy it in the first place? Judith Beasley was introduced in a video advocating “Stay Put” hairspray as she goes through a car wash, without a hair moving. Beasley is now selling vibrators “why the time it saves in the bedroom is well worth the price.”

In another skit with portraying Beasley, Judith is calling her son “Billy” in for dinner. She opens an imaginary door, and calls for him to come in—“Supper’s ready!” There is no response, so she walks ‘outside’ and off the ‘porch’. A land mind explodes. “Now who put that there?” She queries. As bombs and guns explode around her, she goes through the monologue of a mother calling her child in for dinner. When Billy finally shows up, she asks him “Now, where is your leg? Oh, never mind. You can go get it after you eat.” It is that kind of juxtaposition of the everyday experience and the ravages of war that Tomlin is so gifted at portraying. She is definitely funny and yet somewhat poignant in the characters she’s created.

One of Tomlin’s gifts is her ability to make her characters so real. One of her skits involved 2 women (both portrayed by Tomlin). One, a very wealthy woman says to the impoverished woman “See my new dress? See how beautiful it is? See my new shoes? My father paid a lot of money to buy me these new clothes.” The impoverished woman responds, “See these raggedy clothes?  My Father is going to give me a white robe, some day. See my old shoes? My Father is going to give me gold slippers one day.” The wealthy woman responds “See that big house on the hill over there? My father paid a lot of money to buy that house.” The impoverished woman answers “See that hill that the big house stands on? My Father owns that big hill.” Both characters are completely believable, both describing their perspectives with 100% accuracy. That is Tomlin’s gift.

At one point, while playing Edith Ann she asked the audience for questions. One woman in the audience asked her if Edith Ann had any chores. Edith Ann responded (sitting on the floor, holding her toes). “Yes. I have chores. I have to watch the soft spot on my baby brother’s head. So I put an ‘X’ on it. And a devil face. With a marker. A PERMANENT marker.” When her mother told Edith Ann that her brother would always have that mark on his head, Edith Ann said, “Well let’s hope he grows hair.”

As the 90-minute show unfolded, Tomlin’s voice became more raspy. At one point, while portraying a character who is working with the aliens studying human beings, her voice broke. She walked over to the chair on the stage, sat down, and took a long drink of water. “I’m not the character right now” she said. “And I’m not Lily Tomlin. I’m a phantom.” She then got up, and resumed her character, not missing a beat. At the end of the skit, she commented, “My voice is so lovely and deep.”

Perhaps the most enjoyable segments of the show was when Tomlin showed us bits of her past—when she was in second grade, and her teacher  “Margaret Ann Sweeney” or her difficult teen years as she coped with her parents discussing cake. But my favorite has always been Edith Ann. Tomlin plays the 6 and a half-year-old with great depth and developmental accuracy. She fidgets, she grabs her toes, she rolls on the floor (a great feat for a woman who is almost 70). She tells of how she gave her dog Buster a bath and some chlorine bleach got into the water “It was an accident” she reassures the audience. “But then all of his hair fell off” she continues. “And we can draw on him with permanent marker. And, that’s the truth.”

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