Thursday, May 30, 2024

Three Broadway Shows Put Motherhood in the Spotlight

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Classic American drama is haunted by monstrous mothers. Vain, vampiric mamas prowl through plays from Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” to Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” from Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” to Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” For those guys, mothers are either harpies or sirens—villains or traps. Yet, suddenly, this season we’re surrounded by richly human mothers, each with a compassionately observed interiority. (It’s maybe not a coincidence that 2024 has been a bumper year for women’s writing on Broadway.) In fact, Paula Vogel’s “Mother Play,” Shaina Taub’s musical “Suffs,” and Amy Herzog’s “Mary Jane” all happen to contain a long moment during which we are invited to simply sit and study a woman’s face. In a world where we don’t fear mothers as Medusas, perhaps we’ll choose to look at them forever.

In the autofictional “Mother Play,” at Second Stage’s Hayes Theatre, Celia Keenan-Bolger stars as Martha, a lightly disguised version of Vogel, and Jim Parsons portrays a version of the playwright’s brother Carl, who died of complications from AIDS in 1988. The play, which begins by flashing back to the early sixties, follows Martha and Carl for four decades as they deal with their hard-drinking, self-regarding single mom, Phyllis, played with a wonderful, lurching grace by Jessica Lange. Vogel’s work is subtitled “A Play in Five Evictions,” referring both to Phyllis’s struggle to keep her family housed in tenement apartments—the projection designer Shawn Duan puts images of scuttling cockroaches on fridges and trash cans—and to her vicious expulsion of sweet, bookish Carl after he tells her that he’s been sleeping with men.

If Vogel had ended her play there, with Phyllis shouting, “You have five minutes to pack up and get out,” then “Mother Play” would be another monster drama. Instead, Vogel tracks Phyllis’s strange, magnetic effect on her children and theirs on her. A lovely, if fleeting, rapprochement comes in 1978, when Martha coaxes her mother out to a gay club with her and Carl and then the family dances together. Tiny, pugnacious Keenan-Bolger plays Martha like a jackhammer, carrying the tension of her upbringing in her shoulders; Parsons fills up the space with huge looping gestures. Of the three actors, though, the only one who can actually get down on the dance floor is Lange. You learn a great deal about Phyllis’s frustrations and capacities by watching her groove to “Disco Inferno.”

Vogel herself exerts a parental force on contemporary American drama: her Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive,” from 1997, became a template for the postmodern memory play, in which whimsical touches counterbalance instances of cruelty. (A Broadway revival in 2022 was a reminder of its astonishing power.) Here, she returns to those earlier formal innovations, though she seems far less confident in her pacing: the fanciful elements, like an interlude in which the cockroaches tap-dance, aren’t well integrated, and the climax relies heavily on the poignancy of Phyllis, in a wheelchair, unable to remember her son’s passing. (Dementia is a surefire way to make your audience weep.) I was far more affected by a long, wordless sequence in which Phyllis, bored, tries to fill the time after her children are gone. In the script, Vogel scores what she calls the Phyllis Ballet: there should be booze, a microwaved meal, Muzak on the radio. But the director Tina Landau and Lange have added an unscripted gesture. As Phyllis wanders about, she tucks a flower briefly, tenderly, under her chin. In the next scene, touch-averse Phyllis places Martha’s hand in the same hollow. Phyllis can be devastatingly awful, but this little grace note shows us how much her daughter—so sure that she’s unloved—has actually been on her mother’s mind.

The steadiness of a woman’s attention is also the prime mover in “Suffs,” a galvanizing musical written and composed by Shaina Taub, about the fight for women’s suffrage in the first decades of the twentieth century. Taub stars as Alice Paul, a novice activist willing to challenge veteran movement leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella). “Let Mother vote!” Catt sings in a jingly Tin Pan Alley curtain-raiser, eager to make men comfortable with the idea of extending the franchise. But it’s 1913, and Paul and other young suffragists aren’t interested in such pandering: they march; sing anachronistic, grab-’em-by-the-misogynist-slur anthems (“I’d rather be right than rich / cuz I’m a great American bitch”); and rally behind the activist Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), who dresses as a warrior queen while riding a white palfrey at the head of their processions. Rather less jauntily, they burn President Woodrow Wilson in effigy—there are no men in the cast, and the character is played by Grace McLean in drag—and endure imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feedings. The torture is kept offstage, communicated mainly by letter from Paul to her suffs, and, as Taub sings, McLean’s dreamy voice forms a menacing counterpoint. “Ladies must be protected,” the buffoonish Wilson warbles, swaying on the balls of his feet like Fred Astaire.

Catt may use the popular conception of the Mother as cozy reassurance, but the musical, directed by Leigh Silverman, understands another key aspect of motherhood—the sometimes productive friction inherent in passing knowledge from one generation to the next. We see this when Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and the older Mary Church Terrell (Anastaćia McCleskey) disagree about how to call the white women of the movement to account for marginalizing Black marchers, and when Catt recommends caution to Paul, and the younger crusader inevitably rebels. In the musical’s closing moments, Taub shows us the activists who will come after Paul—the work is never-ending. Earlier in the show, at intermission, we see an immense photograph of the real Milholland, in full regalia; she died, of anemia, during the campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment. Like Paul, Milholland didn’t have children, but these are Founding Mothers all the same.

Motherhood in Amy Herzog’s exquisite “Mary Jane,” now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman, has been distilled to an almost unbearable degree. We never actually see Mary Jane (Rachel McAdams, still a bit hesitant onstage) hold her son, Alex. The toddler is so medically burdened that he requires around-the-clock care, and for the long first section of the play (directed by Anne Kauffman) he’s out of sight in his bedroom; we register his presence only by the beeping of his breathing apparatus. The building’s superintendent (the terrific Brenda Wehle) wants to put grates on the windows, but Alex will never walk or reach up to a window—he’ll never be endangered by a fall. He’s “my little prince,” a kindhearted home health aide (April Matthis) says, which makes us think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s child monarch, in space, ruling a kingdom in a vacuum.

After the first act, we don’t hear anyone call Mary Jane by her name. By the time Alex goes to the hospital, the women helping her are addressing her only as Mom. A doctor (Matthis again), a Buddhist chaplain (Wehle again), and others speak in bracing, honest terms while also supporting Mary Jane as she cares for her son, and tries to maintain her optimism. Herzog has spoken about the story stemming in part from crushing personal experience, which you hear in the play’s technical specificity and in its tone of bright anguish. The production’s spiritual aspects—Mary’s name; Alex as the peaceful prince, whose body she bathes and tends; the way the set designer Lael Jellinek has the apartment set fly out but then hover, angelically, above the white hospital blankness—are almost invisible behind the text’s welter of worldly detail. At the end, though, as Mary Jane tells the chaplain about the auras of an oncoming migraine, the play focusses all of its light on her face, and Mary Jane turns into something like a medieval icon of the Virgin. The theatrical background is gone; even dimension disappears in the tight spotlight. Mary Jane has been rarefied just to her suffering and her love—and, of course, to the way she shines. ♦

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