My beard dates back to the year 2000, when I decided to stop shaving. Nothing could be more natural. I was living on a ship, traveling the world, and applying a razor felt like wasted effort. Within days, stubble carpeted my face for the first time. By the end of the week, the beard was denser and redder than I’d ever imagined. I marveled at my facial hair in the mirror.
Until that point, I’d been a scrawny, nerdy teenager. When I returned to Pittsburgh, my friends were astonished by the new look.
“The sea can change a man,” said my friend Elena Passarello, in the gruff impersonation of a mariner. “I remember when you were just a boy.”
Everyone had advice: I should wax it, shape it, groom it, let it grow. I should cultivate an elaborate mustache. I should scrap the beard and try a goatee. The suggestions were endless. But one thing was certain: There was no point in going back. My naked jaw was the face of a child. A red beard, however manscaped, signaled manhood.
The Isenberg men are abundant of facial hair: Both my uncles sport beards, my brother recently grew a massive lumberjack beard, and my Dad owns the handsomest beard I’ve ever seen. There is no spoken tradition, no religious or cultural need. The things just grow, and we keep them around. Our faces are generally soft and round, so beards sculpt our profiles. Some guys look good with soul patches and muttonchops. The Isenbergs look better as Vikings.
Meanwhile, I am irrationally proud of its color. After a walk in the sunlight, my strawberry blond hair turns completely blond; you can barely tell that I’m a part-time ginger. But the redness of my beard remains intact, no matter what the solar exposure. Statistically speaking, red beards are rare, and they make an impression. Lego used to sell red-bearded captains for their pirate series. The Ottoman corsair Barbarossa was nicknamed Red Beard by his enemies. There is a Kurosawa movie called Red Beard (albeit filmed in black and white). People see red beards and immediately think of Scottish warriors and The Guy at the Party with Lots of Beer. There are tribesmen in the highlands of Papua New Guinea who otherwise look nothing like me, yet we share the red-bearded look. This is one genetic mutation I can get behind.
In ordinary life, my beard remains intact. I would never volunteer to shave it, not even to excavate my long-lost chin. As a writer, I can look however I damn well please. As an emcee or sketch comedian or solo performer, a beard is no more obtrusive than a pompadour—the audience comes to ignore it. No job will ever require its eradication. Usually, the beard is safe.
But the theater is cruel.
Tomorrow is my acting debut in Costa Rica. I will play Jim [The Gentleman Caller] in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. I am looking forward to my first production with The Little Theatre Group, the country’s only English-language community troupe, which has entertained audiences since the 1940s. Ask almost any English-speaking person in Costa Rica about The Little Theatre Group, and they all smile with recognition. It’s an honor to be aboard, and I couldn’t be happier about the role.
Yet The Glass Menagerie is set in the 1930s, and if there’s one thing ambitious young men didn’t do during The Great Depression, it was grow beards.
So I’ll have to shave it.
Words can’t describe how much I’ve dreaded this afternoon. The last time I shaved my beard completely was for another role, in Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. That drama took place during World War II, in a segregated army camp. The only thing white and African-American soldiers had in common was that neither could have facial hair on duty. I pleaded with the director to let me keep it, holding out hope that the size of the theater would obscure my beard and make it seem like five o’clock shadow. He didn’t go for it. I sorrowfully raked a Bic across my cheeks until my baby face emerged.
“I always lose 10 years and gain 10 pounds,” I like to quip. And it’s true: I look much younger without a beard, but also much flabbier. Because I am both fairly vain and self-critical, the visage that appears reminds me of nothing so much as Mad Magazine. My jaw-line feels like a lie, corroborated only by pogonotrophy. It’s an unfortunate reaction, to recoil at your “actual” face. A beard is my equivalent of mascara. If makeup can erase wrinkles, the least I can ask of my beard is to hide a double chin.
Yet the show must go on, and so the beard must come off. Living in Costa Rica has been a chance to reinvent some superficial aspects of my personality, and a beardless month will allow me to revisit my actual face. I won’t like it, any more than I would like a missing tooth or a patch eye, but it’s the only face I have, and I might as well embrace it.
And beards always grow back. Thank God.