Monday, June 9, 2008


Photos: Left, cast of Mom's the Word 2: Unhinged []; Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn in 2004 remount of 'Night Mother on Broadway []


This is an interesting pair of shows you’re sharing with us today; both deal with motherhood, but in very different ways.

Yes, that’s right. Mom’s the Word 2: Unhinged is a return production to the Belfry and is a collective creation written and performed by the five women who also wrote and performed the first Mom’s the Word show about 15 years ago. These five women were professional actors who found themselves becoming at-home mothers and going through the inevitable major changes that parenthood brings. They thought they could create a show that both celebrated and poked fun at the trials and triumphs of motherhood, and asked former Belfry artistic director Roy Surette to help them. The resulting two shows, the first focused on raising babies and small children and the second on dealing with the turbulent teenage years and aging issues, have been wildly popular. In complete contrast to this comic and feel-good portrayal of motherhood is the Theatre Inconnu production of American playwright Marsha Norman’s 1983 play ‘Night Mother. This 90 minute emotional roller coaster of a play features a poor and uneducated Southern middle-aged daughter, divorced, depressed and living with her widowed mother, who calmly announces at the beginning of the play that she will kill herself in an hour and a half. The rest of the play involves her mother’s desperate efforts to convince her to stay alive and with her. Very high stakes drama indeed and two wonderfully challenging roles for women.

As you say, Mom’s the Word has enjoyed a lot of success and has toured widely. There have been productions in Scotland and Australia. What is the source of its appeal?

In many ways this is a piece of grassroots populist theatre, even though it is being performed in mainstream theatres. Grassroots theatre tells stories of community experience back to communities and this is what we see in Mom’s the Word. All of us have been somebody’s son or daughter and many of us are parents, so this show speaks to issues we can all relate to. Both times I have seen this show, there is that wonderful sense of connection to the material, with audience members nodding and laughing at themselves as well as the women who are telling us their own stories of motherhood and marriage. The show is simplicity itself; it is littler more than a series of monologues where each of the five actresses speaks directly to the audience and is supported through physical action or still pictures by the other four. Interweaving through these extended monologues are stories of normal kids, troubled kids, worries around drugs and sex, stale marriages, aging bodies and, in one case, breast cancer. The major achievement of the show is how very funny these five women are in their storytelling delivery; they turn self-deprecation into an art form. While all five women rise to the material they have created, my favorite performers are Deborah Williams and Alison Kelly, both of whom are gifted comedians. There is also a lovely synergy among the five, even with newcomer Beverley Elliott stepping into the role developed by Robin Nichol. Surette does a terrific job keeping everything visually interesting, as does Pam Johnson in her inventive set design of a wall of shelves filled with the detritus of modern family lives. A highly-recommended show to see with your own parents or children, or with a group of parents like yourself.

‘Night Mother won the Pulitzer Prize for best play in 1984 and the original production featured Kathy Bates, with Sissy Spacek playing the daughter and Anne Bancroft the mother in the 1986 film version. Tough acts to follow for local actors, is that right?

Very tough. This is incredibly high-stakes drama and for the most part this Theatre Inconnu production, directed by artistic director Clayton Jevne, rises to meet its challenges. Jevne makes inventive use of his small theatre space in the Fernwood Community Association hall by incorporating the real kitchen in the space, which is usually hidden behind black masking curtains. The two actors are thus able to make use of the sink, fridge and stovetop range in ways that make the domestic setting of the play very true to life. This is very much an actors’ play so the focus is on how well these two women deal with the psychological and emotional demands of the material. Karen Lee Pickett, a local playwright and actor, plays the daughter Jessie with a mix of matter-of-fact decisiveness and compassion for how her decision to commit suicide is affecting her mother. Jessie is a very hard role to make work dramatically; she is a long-term depressive and shutaway who we hear has very low social skills, and yet she must have the energy to move the play’s action forward throughout. Pickett negotiates the role with success, although I felt that the strangeness of Jessie (she is described as having an off-putting smile that is not in evidence here) was somewhat lacking; her Jessie felt a bit too normal. That said, Pickett does play the role with consistency and connectedness that make her awful choice feel inevitable. Geli Bartlett as Thelma, Jessie’s mother, has I think the harder of the two roles as her journey is one of ignorance through denial through confusion through a kind of terrible helpless acceptance of her only daughter’s choice. Thelma is not a very sympathetic character; she is quite selfish, demanding and embittered by her life. While Bartlett does a convincing job with her caring and concern for Jessie, she did not persuade me of the darker qualities of her character; the whining and wheedling and guilt-inducing ability of a self-absorbed mother. A Toronto review of a recent remount of ‘Night Mother (at Soulpepper Theatre) compares the despair of Jessie with the desperation of Thelma, and I think that the distinction is both right and true. Jessie’s despair is fixed and unchangeable whereas Thelma’s desperation to keep her daughter alive should be the emotional journey that we travel with as an audience. No wonder great actresses like Anne Bancroft and Canadian Dawn Greenhalgh (currently in Toronto) have been drawn to the role; it’s that demanding. Bartlett does not reach the emotional heights called for by Norman’s play; however, this remains a generally solid production which I heard a fellow audience member describe to Jevne after Saturday night’s show as “strong medicine”. Indeed it is.

What did you take away from seeing these two shows back-to-back on Saturday, especially given that you are a mother yourself?

I enjoy a great relationship with my own mother and also with my two sons, so seeing Mom’s the Word feels like a kind of positive reinforcement of these relationships. I took my teenage son to the show the first time I saw it and we had a very good time laughing together. The show also has some very honest and touching moments and I really felt for the actresses who reveal that their son has gone off the rails or who are unhappy in their marriage and considering an affair. On the other hand, the simple stories of buying a daughter her first bra, or of finding a son in bed with a girl on Sunday morning, offer me glimpses of experiences I will never have (not having a daughter) or may have at some point (gulp!) ‘Night Mother does not speak as personally to its audience (although anyone who has dealt with suicide should be forewarned) but does offer a penetrating examination of depression, dysfunction and despair. For me, perhaps a warning of what to avoid in seeing Thelma’s failure to mother her child, to love her enough in the unbounded and unhinged way that motherhood demands, to make her daughter want to live.

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