Gators in Paradise by Laura Faye Smith

Laura Faye Smith is playing Annette in God of Carnage.

As I type this, I have been in Naples for 37 days, almost to the minute.  It is mid-October and I am wearing shorts and a tank top and flip flops.  I have a tan.  I went stand up paddling this morning, and shopped this afternoon for an extra bikini, since I find myself going to the beach almost every day now that the show is open.  I have not worn a coat or even a cardigan outside since I arrived, even on rainy days, or even late at night.  When I’m walking down the sidewalk, I keep an eye out to make sure I don’t step on any lizards that dart into my path.  I carry a bottle of Off insect repellent in my purse at all times now, after a particularly bad attack of no-seem-ums on the beach while watching the sunset.  I have learned it is not particularly helpful to say “It’s near a Publix and a Walgreens” or “it’s in a strip mall” when giving someone landmarks.  And when I turn on the radio in the car, I can happily sing along with virtually every song, because most stations here play hits from the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.

For those of you who live in Naples, this is probably a pretty unremarkable list.  But I am not from Naples – I am from Portland, Oregon, and this is my first time here.  I’ve actually been to Florida before – Orlando, Fort Walton Beach, and Miami Beach, but all for leisure, and just for 3-4 days at a time.  This is the first time I am in Florida to work, and although I spent a good part of my mid-late twenties touring as an actor, this is the first time I have worked regionally as an actor, which means living in another city for a couple months straight, and settling in to the life the new city has to offer.

And I have to say, I love it here.

Not to diss on Portland, mind you – I love my City of Roses with a passion, and it has always treated me well.  I am fortunate to work steadily there in theatre, film, and voice over.  It was at Portland Center Stage that I first had the pleasure of working with the brilliant Cody Nickell, and where I saw him again this summer while working on their JAW playwright’s festival and he asked me to audition for this show, which is how I ended up here.  Portland is a lush, beautiful, creative, food-centric, book-centric, beer-centric, marvelous, quirky city.  I love the places I get to perform there, and the incredible people I am humbled to work with.  My husband, dog, and friends are all there, and I miss them every day.

But when I got the call from Gulfshore Playhouse offering me the role of Annette in God of Carnage, it was a no-brainer to say yes.  I had loved the show on Broadway, and actually auditioned for God of Carnage in Portland, but didn’t end up getting cast that time around.  I have great respect and admiration for Cody as an actor, and couldn’t wait to see what he had up his sleeve as a director.  From the moment Melanie Lisby (Gulfshore’s General Manager and our Stage Manager) contacted me, I could tell I was going to be in good hands – there has not been a moment in this process where I have wondered what was going on or been without something I needed.    Kristen Coury and the rest of the Gulfshore staff and interns have been wonderful to work with, and I could not adore my cast more than I do.  The perk of an endless summer poured over the top of all this goodness feels downright decadent.  If anything, I kinda worry that the idyllic experience I am having here will spoil me for all future gigs.  Even going back home might be a bit of a transition, because let’s face it, if I were home right now, I would be writing this wearing jeans, boots, and a sweater.  My skin would be it’s usual state of pale, and I would have gone for a morning run in the rain, hopping over the puddles that dot the sidewalks.  My winter coat would already have gotten plenty of use, and my bikini would still be stuffed in the far corner of my dresser, never having seen the light of day since October of 2011 when we took a trip to Maui.

So yeah, I’m feeling pretty lucky right now.

In fact, there was really only one thing that I was concerned about before coming here.  Okay, two things:  Snakes and alligators.  I have a completely irrational, but very real and panic-inducing fear of both, and when I looked up Naples on the map, I couldn’t help but notice how close it was to the Everglades, which in my imagination (since I’ve never been there) is a writhing, snarling, bloodthirsty hotbed of prehistoric gators and anaconda sized snakes with a personal vendetta against me.  After that, I felt a mild sense of pervading dread, like when you know you have a particularly unpleasant doctor’s appointment scheduled.

A couple weeks before I left, I was at an audition, and told my friends Jim and Shelley that I was heading to Naples to do this show.  Jim had worked in Sarasota a few times, so I asked him about the gator/snake situation.  His response was not encouraging.

“Oh, they’re everywhere!”  He exclaimed.  “Be careful.  The fresh water is full of water snakes and gators.  And the ocean is full of sharks – don’t swim after sundown.  Don’t stick your hands in a bush or anything, or walk through the grass.  In fact, stay on the pavement at all times, and you’ll hopefully be okay.”

Petrified, I turned Shelley.  “Do you think that’s true?”  I asked.

“Yeesh, I don’t know,”  Shelley said, furrowing his brow.  “But I did hear a story about this guy who opened the trunk of his car and there was a giant python in it.  Wouldn’t that be scary?”

Thinking my husband would reassure me, I took my rising panic to him.  “Look,” he said, “Just use your head.  Be alert to your surroundings.  And don’t leave your doors and windows open.”

“Why not?” I asked, heart pounding.

“Because snakes like to crawl in through them and hide in your house,” he said calmly, as if it were the most obvious thing ever.  I felt like punching him.  Or crying.  Or both

Finally, after three or four nightmares about finding snakes in my purse or opening the front door to find an alligator between me and my car, I called Cody’s wife Kate, knowing she had been here for a couple months already. “Kate, ” I said, “I’m freaking out.  I have to know–how many snakes and gators have you seen since you’ve been there?”

Kate burst out laughing.  “None!  Not even one,” she giggled.  “In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a gator – I’ve actually been looking for them.  But I haven’t seen any the whole time I’ve been here.”

“You’re sure?” I asked, starting to feel a little better.

“I’m sure,” she said kindly.  “You’ll be fine.  It’s great here, you’re gonna love it.”

She was right.

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