If you recently watched Miracles from Heaven, your eyes are probably still red and swollen like mine. I’m not even sure how you’re reading this. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that if you have some pent-up emotion seeking release, go watch this movie. It is less costly than a therapist and far more effective.
Watching the film was even more exciting for me because I was able to see the performance of a dear friend on the big screen. Erica McGee, wife of my college buddy Ryan, plays the mean church lady, and because I know what a sweet soul she is, I can say with conviction that she had a remarkable performance.
I joked with Ryan afterward about this and told him to congratulate Erica on channeling her inner “mean girl.” It turned out that at a prescreening of the movie at their church, their fellow church members audibly gasped at a couple of points and turned to stare at her angrily to the point that he pondered sneaking her out before the credits to ensure her safety.
What makes that such a funny story to me is that anyone that knows her could attest to what a kind person Erica is. She is a true southern lady, exuding class and charm that hasn’t been seen since Designing Women ruled the airwaves. When Erica says, “Ya’ll” it is as smooth and southern as a stream of warm molasses crossing the lip of a mason jar in its slow, steady journey to the steaming biscuit below. She is simply the quintessential southern belle.
As it happens, I share her pain in paying the price for a performance done all too well. You see, just as Ryan and Erica’s relationship first began to bloom, I had the dubious distinction of almost nipping it in the bud.
Yep, you read that correctly. I almost singlehandedly destroyed their relationship.
Flash back to the summer of 1991. I was working in Pigeon Forge and slightly out of the loop when rumors began to circulate among my UT buddies that Ryan had found a girl and things were looking pretty serious. The details came in bits and pieces like headlines across the newswire. She was beautiful. She was smart. She was talented – performing in Dollywood’s newest show, Fire on the Mountain. It sounded like Ryan had landed a 12-pound bass and was trying to reel her in close enough to net her and have her mounted on his wall. Now, Erica probably won’t appreciate that analogy, but you get my point.
Ryan contacted me around this time and invited me to join him in catching her show at Dollywood one afternoon. “We should get dinner too!” I added excitedly. “Have you ever eaten at Duff’s Smorgasbord?”
He had not – It was truly going to be an amazing afternoon!
Ryan was as awestruck by Duff’s as any college kid getting all-you-can-eat for $8 would be. I was equally awestruck by Erica’s performance in Fire on the Mountain. She was fantastic, singing and dancing her way into my affection and gaining my approval to date Ryan, desired or not.
As the show ended, the performers advised the audience that they would meet us outside shortly and sign autographs.
And there the trouble began.
You see, Ryan and I had always been the practical jokers among our group of friends, and since Erica had not met me, we decided that I would approach first alone as an awestruck stalker-fan who watched every show and had finally worked up the courage to talk to her. I embraced the role and, if I do say so myself, I had a performance equally as engaging as Erica’s mean church lady.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, Ryan came out and revealed the joke, which Erica took with grace and a visible measure of relief.
After chatting a bit, other performers began to exit to prepare for the next show so I suggested that Ryan and I ride some rides and catch back up with Erica later. So we did. What we failed to realize was that Erica did not have another show but was, in fact, finished for the day. Being the mouth-breathing smorgasborders that we were, we assumed the opposite, and well, you know what they say about assumptions.
The whole situation was like one of those art pieces that from every single angle except one looks like a useless hunk of metal. Only from one specific point of perception could you see it in a way that made sense and presented something logical. Well, Erica was standing in that single perceptive point and we were not. As we rushed off to ride rollercoasters, she was left to marvel that some guy she just met came up to her acting like a fool just for kicks and then talked her boyfriend into leaving her standing in Dollywood to spend the rest of her day alone.
Ryan called me later that night, heartbroken and mystified that she had dumped him.
But unshared perceptions could not twist fate, and a few short years later, I stood in a tuxedo watching Erica being escorted down the aisle to exchange vows with Ryan.
Today Erica performs all over the Southeast in GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) The Musical, of which she is also the director and author of the stage adaptation. GRITS has even been known to venture above the Mason-Dixon line and entertain those less familiar with the likes of sweet tea and country ham. If you get the chance, go see it. Just don’t approach her after the show posing as a slightly off-kilter fan with stalking tendencies – it may not go over well.
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more, click here.
© Michael L. Collins
- Originally published in the April 20, 2016 edition of The Mountain Press