“If you want to become a star, then do a play with me,” Gwendolyn now jokes. She had a history of getting cast in plays with people who would later go on to fame and fortune. Two of her fellow actors in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest landed reoccurring roles in the popular medical drama ER. A third cast member got her own sitcom, Will and Grace.
Debra Messing was fresh out of a graduate acting program when she was brought in from New York City to play Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest. She was certainly beautiful to look at, but nothing about her said future television star to me at the time. I liked her, but I could tell right off the bat that the cast didn’t. I wasn’t sure why.
Sure, she talked a lot. All of her conversations led back to her boyfriend in New York (who is now her ex-husband). Yes, it got kind of old.
“Oh my god, that girl sucks all the air out of the room,” Lady Bracknell commented during dress rehearsal.
On opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, Debra handed out Hershey’s Hugs and Kisses chocolate candy. She would jump in front of someone and bat her big eyes and say “HUGS AND KISSES”, then hand them the candy giving them a BIG hug and a kiss on the cheek. Not everyone appreciated this. I watched her do this to the artistic director of the theatre while I was ironing a shirt. She was beaming ear to ear as she bounced away like a kangaroo with her bag of candy looking for more people to affectionately terrorize. The artistic director waited for her to get out of sight, then he threw the five small pieces of candy on my ironing board.
“I don’t want this shit,” he said and walked away. I ate the candy, instead.
Cecily had only one costume in the play. Debra needed a lot of help from me, but I didn’t mind. I could feel her frantic energy when I laced her into her corset every night. She was the kind of actress that could get to the theater at noon to prepare for an 8pm show, and still be in a panic getting ready at the places call. I got the feeling that panic was useful to her acting performance.
Debra Messing liked to shop. She came in one day with a pair of gray slacks she found in a thrift store.
“They were only TWO DOLLARS!” she bragged to everyone.
The pants were too long, so she offered to pay me to hem them. I marked the hem and we settled on a ten-dollar alteration fee. I finished them and she gave me a big hug and kiss.
“I don’t have any cash. Can I pay you tomorrow?” she said.
Every day when I got to the theater, there would be packages stacked up at Debra’s mirror in the dressing room. It wasn’t unusual for out-of-town actors to get packages in the mail at the theater, but Debra got more than usual: clothes, cookware, jewelry, stuffed animals, hair stuff. All four women in the show shared a dressing room and they took notice as she would open them in amazement.
“It’s just like CHRISTMAS!” she announced.
“What is all of this?” Miss Prism asked.
“I LOVE to watch QVC as I fall asleep, and then ALL THIS STUFF just shows UP!”
“You don’t remember ordering all this stuff, do you?”
“No,” Debra said, “But I love SURPRISES!” she said batting her eyes.
By the middle of the run of Earnest, the cast had enough of Debra Messing’s bubbly antics. The crew liked her, but there was a lot of eye rolling and mumbling from the cast. I felt rather bad for her.
The last week of the run, Debra started complaining that she didn’t feel well. She kept telling me to loosen her corset. Her performance as Cecily was as delightful as ever, but the twinkle in her eye was gone. I wasn’t sure if she was really sick, homesick, or she knew that the cast was sick of her. I took her to the grocery store for some antacid after the Thursday night show. When I drove her to company housing I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would ever see Debra Messing (at least in person).
I got a call at home on Friday morning.
“Debra is sick and going back to New York City today.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “Who’s going to play Cecily?”
The theatre lucked out. The wife of the actor who played Jack Worthing in Earnest was in town visiting for closing weekend. It just so happened that she was a very accomplished actress and had played the role of Cecily before (albeit ten years prior). An emergency rehearsal was called that afternoon. Luckily she fit the costume perfectly.
I got kind of sad when I saw the company manager pack up Debra’s things during the new Cecily put-in rehearsal. He had already taken her to the airport and promised to ship her makeup kit and all the incoming QVC surprises to her.
He handed me an envelope.
“Debra Messing told me to tell you goodbye and give you this.”
I opened the envelope to find a ten-dollar bill and a Post-it note with a smiley face that said, “Thank you for hemming my pants, Dennis!”
Photograph by Chris Bennion.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.