GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – When actor and teacher Toni Anderson-Sommo got the script, it only took a few lines.
“She’s standing there with a singing bowl, kind of calling down the northern lights, because she heard that those are the torches that the recently departed carry with them as they find their way home from heaven.”
The script is “Almost, Maine,” the play kicking off the 2021-22 season of Home Made Theater, which begins this month at the Dee Sarno Theater in Saratoga Springs. The character Anderson-Sommo is talking about is Glory, one of four that she portrays in the show.
And, when she thinks about the torches carried by the departed, she sees one held in the hand of her own son, Geoff, who passed away at 8 years old.
“When I read this story, I think about how there’s a lot of people who grieve and want that final connection with the people they’ve lost,” she said. “Sometimes you find a way to do that, and sometimes you don’t.”
For Anderson-Sommo, theater has been a way to help grieve since long before the character of Glory came along.
That said, Glory’s story is one of grief that Anderson-Sommo saw mirroring her own, and that was a first. In her time with Home Made Theater, most of Anderson-Sommo’s characters have fit the archetype of the snobby socialite with a drink in her hand.
“I don’t own a fur coat, but I’ve worn one more than I ever want to tell you.”
In the play, Glory is described as a woman who turns to spiritualism after the death of her unfaithful husband, moments after she turns away his bid for another chance.
“When I turn him away, he runs out of the apartment and into the street, and a bus comes around the corner and just takes him out,” Anderson-Sommo describes, speaking for her character. “And if I had taken him back, he wouldn’t have been taken out.”
That guilt manifests in a metaphorical broken heart, represented in a bag of 19 pieces of slate that Glory carries with her in the play.
Perseverance made personal
Anderson-Sommo knows the weight of grief and guilt. She feels it especially strongly in September, which this year marks 21 years since the month of Geoff’s passing from a rare disease.
And this year, just like that bus around the corner in “Almost, Maine,” another tragedy struck.
On Sept. 1, a fire was started in Anderson-Sommo’s Glens Falls home after her husband, a craftsman, purchased new lithium batteries for his power tools, and left them to charge overnight.
“Probably around 2:30 in the morning we were awoken by this acrid, horrible, toxic smoke, and all the fire alarms going off,” she recounts, just two weeks later.
In that time, they’ve found out that even though the fire damage appeared minor, the toxic smoke and heat were so bad that the family will now be out of their home for over a year.
After the fire, Anderson-Sommo thought about stepping down from the role that had spoken to her in order to deal with the loss. She did choose to take a sabbatical from her position as an English literature and creative writing teacher at SUNY Adirondack.
When it came to Home Made Theater, though, she felt driven to stay because her friends in the theater felt equally driven to help, providing financial and emotional support at a dire time.
She’s felt that way throughout her time working with fellow actors across the region, and not just within Home Made Theater. She has a longtime history with dance, having performed with the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra.
Acting surfaced in her life through teaching English. Anderson-Sommo recounts being called on to read passages in her own studies frequently, and even being asked herself whether she acted.
At the end of the day, though, it was saying goodbye to another son that got her to act.
On the day that her surviving son, PJ, went off to college, a casting call went out for a performance of “The Pajama Game” at Glens Falls Community Theater.
After being prodded by a friend, she agreed to audition – but only if she only got a small role. But the moment she got onstage, she knew it was a place she wanted to stay.
“I just felt so good having something to focus on, making all these friends instead of worrying about the fact that now I was an empty nester.”
In 2018, she made her debut as a writer-director with “U R Here,” a play about people falling in love and figuring out what connections are the most important ones in the age of social media.
When Anderson-Sommo remembers her late son, one of the first things she says to describe him is his energy.
“We called Geoff the Energizer bunny from the time of his birth,” she recounts. “We would say, ‘Okay buddy, time to go into the recharger,’ and put him to bed.”
In the wake of his death in September 2000, that energy stuck with Anderson-Sommo and her family.
Geoff passed during the 2000 Adirondack Balloon Festival, a coincidence the family will never forget.
“We came outside to tell hospice and family members that Geoff had passed, and my husband looked up and said to me, ‘You have to come out, because Geoff has a message for you.'”
That message, as the family thinks of it to this day, was a hot air balloon in the shape of the Energizer bunny, suspended over the family’s home two blocks away from Crandall Park in Glens Falls.
As Anderson-Sommo tells it, the balloons weren’t supposed to fly that day. The pilot of the Energizer bunny balloon was set to return home having not had the chance to fly his balloon, but wanted to take it out once before leaving town.
The pilot spent hours trying to get the balloon up when it was suddenly picked up by a gust, moving southwest against a northeast air current.
That left the balloon suspended in the air right above the house full of Energizer bunny toys the Anderson-Sommo family had bought for their own energizer since he was a baby, and where they had said goodbye just moments before.
Eventually, the story got back to the pilot.
“He said, ‘I think I was part of a miracle,'” Anderson-Sommo said. “He was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and was told that he could only fly for a bit more. But he chose to retire there, because he felt he had been part of a miracle and he wanted to end his career that way.”
The pilot came to Geoff’s wake, and presented Anderson-Sommo with one final piece of Energizer bunny memorabilia; a pin, which the mother wore for the next 20 years.
“I told my husband that I would finally stop wearing that pin when Geoff gave me a message, that it was time to let go.”
Two decades later, in September 2020, that message came.
Anderson-Sommo had the pin on her lapel when she entered church, for the annual mass the family says for Geoff.
When she walked out, the pin was gone.
“I scoured the church, I looked everywhere, I had the janitorial crew looking for me,” she said. “I never found the pin, and I have to believe that was Geoff telling me it was time to move on.”
The show must go on
When she thinks about parting with that pin now, Anderson-Sommo thinks again about the fire that came a year later to the home she said goodbye to her son in.
“When I look at this fire, I have to look at it as another message from him to move on, because I really had a hard time with everything to do with his childhood and his life. It’s all gone now, so I don’t have a choice.”
And so, on Sept. 24, Anderson-Sommo will move on as the rest of the Home Made Theater troupe does, to a new home in Saratoga Springs. This year’s season is leaving the Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Spa State Park, and finding a new home at Dee Sarno Theater at 320 Broadway.
As of the conversation on Tuesday, the troupe hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to rehearse in the new space.
“We’ve kind of been rehearsing wherever we can,” she said with a laugh.
When she does step on the Dee Sarno stage for the first time for a rehearsal on Tuesday night, it will still be Geoff she sees in the northern lights. But now, she hopes that anyone else who has gone through something similar to her family’s own story can move closer to the closure that came, for her, with a pink rabbit pin.
“I just feel like this story will resonate with anybody who’s gone through a loss.”
“Almost, Maine” opens at the Dee Sarno Theater on Sept. 24.