Thoughts & Musings

Taught to the Tune of a Hickory Stick:
Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (1967)

©2015 by Eileen Warburton

Paul Zindel (1936-2003) wrote out of his life. Monster mothers, sexual repression, child abuse, early paternal abandonment, drunken, suicidal parents, indifferent adults, lost, smart-mouthed adolescents, uncontrollable classrooms, snarky, back-biting teachers’ lounges, redeeming humor, selfish siblings, guilt and blame, chemistry classes, lonely children and teenaged misfits, betrayal, random kindnesses, lurking mortality, lies, mental breakdowns, hostile authorities, bizarre coping techniques, and Staten Island as a boring, oppressive, imprisoning wasteland. This mixture of forces yielded dark, creepy comedy, chaotic sadness, and, above all, a compassion for and understanding of the psychology of young people trapped in disillusion and confusion.

Paul Zindel was born on Staten Island and is buried there. He never made it farther than Manhattan. When he was two his policeman father ran off with his mistress, leaving Paul’s mother, a nurse, to desperately scrabble to survive with two young children. The rootless trio moved pillar-to-post around Staten Island throughout Paul’s childhood, as his mother tried one nutty, failing scheme after another to make money. She was alcoholic, took in dogs and terminally ill boarders, and often threatened suicide to Paul and his sister. He wrote plays throughout his teens, but studied chemistry at Wagner College on Staten Island and became, first, a writer for Allied Chemical and, then, a high school chemistry teacher. A one-shot workshop with Edward Albee inspired him and Zindel wrote The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1964. When produced in New York in 1970, the play won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize and Paul Newman directed it as a movie in 1972. A major publisher of YA lit contacted him to write for her Harper & Row label and Paul Zindel went on to write more than 700 (yes, seven-hundred) books aimed at children and teens. They are dark, sad, funny, unrelenting, and kids love them (My Darling, My Hamburger; Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball!; Confessions of a Teenage Baboon). Some are outright horror fiction. Meanwhile, Zindel wrote popular, dark zany plays like The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild (1972), Ladies at the Alamo (1977), and And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (1967). His young adult trilogy, The Pigman (1968-92), has the double distinction of both winning the 2002 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature” and being among the most frequently banned books in America. The ALA cited Zindel as a pioneer in writing “authentic young adult novels,” observing that “He has the ability to depict young adults in an honest and realistic way.”

In Miss Reardon, however, the troubled kids are in the background, while Zindel’s compassion and comedy is aimed at three schoolteacher sisters who have spent their lives trying to educate them. The play takes place in the destructive vacuum created by the recent death of the controlling mother of the three Reardon sisters. Although Mrs. Reardon (one of Zindel’s “monster mothers”) is gone, the rigid, repressive dynamic she created and the twisted psychic responses she inculcated still rule her daughters. They all started out as idealistic schoolteachers, full of laughter and optimism. Now, after years of disappointment, they are trapped in middle-aged despair and loneliness, yearning to break out but finding it impossible. It’s like Chekov’s Three Sisters on steroids, a corrosive female world with only one peripheral male briefly observing. And what juicy parts for actresses!

Anna, the youngest sister, is the one who initiates the action by having a nervous collapse. After months of supporting her mother through a terrible final illness and watching her die, Anna responds by becoming a compulsive rescuer and hypochondriac. She turns into a terrorist vegan. She urges her honors students to write down “all the ways of dying they could think of.” Worst of all, she stoops to some sort of sexual involvement with a male student. Never mind what a malevolent jerk the kid is, Anna is implicated and the educational authorities are up in arms.

Sister Ceil, the oldest child, represents that very educational authority as the superintendent of schools. Snarky and superior, Ceil is the sister who has built a chilly fortress of ‘me-first!’ around her life. She stole and married her sister’s boyfriend. After ignoring her mother’s final illness, she carried off all the family valuables. And now she’s quite prepared to throw Anna under the bus to protect her career.

Then there’s Catherine, the tippling Miss Reardon of the title, who is left to cope with the ruins of the family life with pitchers of Manhattans and a box of raw “chop meat” under the table. Heart-broken Catherine, middle management at school, middle managing sister at home, deeply disappointed and damaged by life, continues to put one foot in front of the other, holding it all together with her scorching, scathing wit and acid humor.

Two others invade the sisters’ bitter reunion. One is the pushy neighbor, Mrs. Pentrano, nosing her way into the Reardons’ business under the guise of her cosmetic sales. The other is the comically obnoxious Fleur Stein, the flashy wannabe guidance counselor, climber and status seeker, not above a little emotional blackmail to get what she’s after. She barges in, agenda flying, to upset the delicately balanced sister act.

By the time the ladies are finished with each other, we understand why Miss Reardon drinks a little.

Then there’s Catherine, the tippling Miss Reardon of the title, who is left to cope with the ruins of the family life with pitchers of Manhattans and a box of raw “chop meat” under the table. Heart-broken Catherine, middle management at school, middle managing sister at home, deeply disappointed and damaged by life, continues to put one foot in front of the other, holding it all together with her scorching, scathing wit and acid humor.

Two others invade the sisters’ bitter reunion. One is the pushy neighbor, Mrs. Pentrano, nosing her way into the Reardons’ business under the guise of her cosmetic sales. The other is the comically obnoxious Fleur Stein, the flashy wannabe guidance counselor, climber and status seeker, not above a little emotional blackmail to get what she’s after. She barges in, agenda flying, to upset the delicately balanced sister act.

By the time the ladies are finished with each other, we understand why Miss Reardon drinks a little.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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