MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: Maribeth McCarthy and her twin sister, Ellen, star in Meadville Community Theatre’s upcoming production of “Side Show,” a tale of Siamese twins who must choose between their longtime “family” of seedy freak show acts and two men who claim to love them for who they are. In this piece, McCarthy reflects on how the life lessons in “Side Show” are present in her and, in fact, all of our experiences.
“What’s it like to be a Siamese twin?”
“What’s it like not to be? I’ve never known anything else.”
The above comment from the movie “Twin Falls Idaho” has always spoken to my twin sister Ellen and I. Granted, we’re not Siamese twins. But we do play them — Daisy and Violet Hilton, by name — in the Meadville Community Theatre’s production of “Side Show” opening April 27. And we are twins, identical though different in just about every way possible.
If you’ve ever met us, heck, if you’ve ever even seen us, I don’t need to go into that big of an explanation. But for those who haven’t, we follow the typical “twin protocol.” Ellen is more on the quiet side, loves writing in her journal, has a more gentle presence, calls people by their real names, and mostly wears jeans and sneakers. I, on the other hand, have never been quiet, tend to speak about things (incessantly) rather than write about them, have a rather brassy presence, call everyone some version of “dahling!”, and I think I’ve once heard of jeans and sneakers. In most ways, we’re nothing alike. In other ways we’re the same person. Really. Try figuring us out on the phone ;)
One thing that she and I have always shared was our love of the Broadway musical “Side Show.” It wasn’t just that it was a show about twins. It is a show about being accepted, finding your place in the world and wondering who will love you for the person you are instead of perhaps the person someone else wishes you could be. Daisy and Violet Hilton were real performers on the Vaudeville Circuit, and though “Side Show” takes some liberties with their life story, at the core, it is the same. These are two women who lived as two while being, essentially, one.
The musical tells of how they were “rescued” (by two men who may or may not have their best interest at heart) from a seedy freak show and a tyrannical boss to become some of the greatest stars of the 1930s. However, within this “rescue,” they must choose to leave their freak show family, which has been the only constant of love and affection they’ve ever known.
At one point or another, everyone has had to make the choice between an uncertain future and a “safe” present. Ellen and I made that choice back in 2002, when we left behind the “bright lights of Edinboro” and went to teach in China for a year. And let me tell you, the only thing stranger than having a “paler than death” redhead in China is having TWIN “paler than death” redheads in China. For not the first time in our life, but perhaps the most extreme, Ellie and I truly realized what it felt like to be “freaks.” Yet through all that, we found friends who became our family, and they came to care for us and protect us from a world we didn’t completely understand. They became our “Jake,” a character in the musical who will stop at nothing to protect the girls he loves.
In all honesty, there isn’t any part of this musical that hasn’t directly spoken to us. One of the best examples is a song called “Leave Me Alone,” in which Daisy and Violet are constantly trying to get away from each other. As you may well imagine, that doesn’t exactly work. Though not actually joined together, Ellie and I have spent many a day trying to escape the “advice” the other has to offer. This is one of our favorite moments in the show because we get to demonstrate the physical work that went into portraying the twins. We aren’t joined together by anything. Everything you see us do in the show is simply two actresses playing parts (albeit parts we’ve been “preparing” for for about … oh … 14 years).
We were actually fortunate enough to present this show back in 2010, and even more fortunate that some of that wonderful cast is returning for this go-round. We are also joined by a bevy of wonderful actors from the Meadville area — all different ages and from all walks of life. Yet we’re all bound together by this incredible work that speaks to everyone, not just twins. One of my favorite lyrics in the show is a perfect example of that — “Who will ever call to say I love you? Send me flowers or a telegram? Who could proudly stand beside me … who will love me as I am?” I can’t imagine that there’s a person out there who hasn’t asked this very question (though perhaps not sung it). And if/when we’re lucky enough, we’ll get our answer.
In an incredible side-story, Ellen was proposed to opening night of “Side Show” in Edinboro by the actor playing “The Bearded Lady.” It was a freakish evening, if ever there was, and a reminder that everyone, even freaks in a side show, can and will find happiness. I’d like to believe that that goes for everyone — that no one is alone. Granted, you may not have a Siamese twin or even a twin-twin, but whatever you may have felt in this life, be it loneliness, sadness, disappointment, desire or happiness, there is a world of people who have felt the same. And if you’re lucky enough, you’ll find them, connect with them and realize that we’re all put together for a reason. Ellie and I just happened to have a head start. I have spent my life with “my other half,” “the good twin” (though I still think that’s up for debate) — my best friend. Are we ever to learn why we lived as two? Probably not, but I’m thankful it’s been with you.
You can go
“Side Show” is staged at Meadville Community Theatre at 8 p.m. April 27 and 28, May 4, 5, 11 and 12 and 2 p.m. May 6.
- More information and reservations: Call 333-1773.