April 27, 2024

"Mother Play" is a Work of True Compassion

After seeing Mother Play, Paula Vogel’s semi-autobiographical three-hander which opened at the Hayes Theater on the very last day of the 2023-2024 theater season, my friends and I went next door to Sardi’s for a post-show dinner. While we waited for our drinks to arrive, I went to the ladies room. And when I came out of my stall, I found a woman standing in the middle of the room, her eyes brimming with tears. With no prompting from me, she explained that she was still reeling from having just seen “the most remarkable play.” And, of course, that play turned out to be Mother Play

Now as regular readers will know, I am a longstanding Paula Vogel stan but I suspect that even those of you who might be new to her work will, like the woman in the Sardi’s restroom, find yourselves deeply moved by this play.  And that will be especially so if, like Vogel and me, you’re a member of the Baby Boom generation and was raised by one of those mothers who felt thwarted in those days before women’s liberation took root and so poured her ambitions—and her anger—into her children.

The full title of the play is Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions and it tracks four decades of ejections and rejections in the relationships between Phyllis, a single mother whose husband left her for another woman, and her children Carl and Martha. And as this memory play opens, a middle-aged Martha looks back at the day when the three of them—Phyllis then 37, Carl 13 and she 11—moved into a dingy basement apartment in a D.C. suburb that they could only afford if they took on the building’s janitorial duties.  

Carl, who shares a name with Vogel’s real-life brother who died of AIDS in 1988, is one of those sensitive boys who reads serious literature, listens to classical music and yearns to live in someplace like New York or Paris. Martha, a stand-in for the playwright, is socially inept and just trying to avoid the school bullies who make fun of her. But the main preoccupation for both siblings is Phyllis, which also happens to be the name of Vogel’s mother.

Phyllis is furious about the hand that life has dealt her and she deals with it by guzzling gin, chain smoking and criticizing her kids. The latter intensifies when both of them later come out as gay.  “Was it too much to ask for one normal child? “ she rages.

Tina Landau’s deft direction balances the pathos of the family’s interactions with the humor they employ to survive them. The set and video projections also provide some clever moments of levity. But it’s the performances that drove the show home for me and each of the actors—Jessica Lange as Phyllis (click here to read an interview with her) Jim Parsons as Carl and Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha—is superb. 

Several critics have compared Mother Play to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie: a memory play with an absent father, overbearing mother, sensitive son, awkward daughter. But while Glass Menagerie may be the greater play, Mother Play is the more compassionate one.

In his playand throughout the rest of his lifeWilliams struggles to forgive himself for leaving his mother and sister behind. Vogel's play holds onto her anger toward a mother who emotionally abandoned her and her beloved brother but it also tells those of us still trying to understand mothers who were overtly or covertly ambivalent about motherhood that simply acknowledging the past might be the best way to move on from it.

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