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Generational Mama: “Mother Play” reviewed

As the 2023-24 theatre season finishes its last lap, some of the year’s greatest triumphs have tilted the scene on its very axis. Stereophonic, a three-hour period look at a band recording an album, has the best music to be found on the New York stage. Illinoise interpolates the twenty-year-old Sufjan Stevens album into a dance piece that rivals any other original musical to come along this year.

And then there’s a dialogue-free solitary scene Jessica Lange that one can argue is among the most expressive, illuminating stretches of time any performer has delivered in recent memory.

That performance occurs in Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions, Paula Vogel’s latest memory play, which just opened at the Hayes Theater. Lange is Phyllis, a divorced mother of two at the play’s start, with Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger), Phyllis’ daughter, a surrogate for Vogel herself.

Mother Play isn’t Vogel’s first act of confession; in fact, her breakthrough play, 1990’s The Baltimore Waltz, has already introduced audiences to her older brother, Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988. (Here he is played by Jim Parsons, who rounds out the cast of three). This show, however, makes the formative decades of “Martha” and Carl’s life a bit more explicit (the play begins in 1964, and continues to present day).

After having been abandoned by their husband and father and fallen on hard times, the three live in close quarters in a run-down custodial basement apartment in the Washington, D.C. area. Phyllis puts on a façade of working hard and sacrificing all t make ends meet for her children, but there are many nights when she stays out light to enjoy a liquid dinner – and there are others when she demands her teenage children play bartender to her. (Some nights include both.) It’s a role Carl and Martha have gotten used to playing.

Director Tina Landau employs a light hand to Mother Play, which runs an intermission-less 105 minutes and demands that Keenan-Bolger and Parsons perform many of the scene changes on David Zinn’s set on their own, and this touch makes much of the family’s situation palatable, including an insidious cockroach infestation (with Shawn Duan’s projections work remarkably well within the Hayes) and even a night out at a gay bar in the 1970s.

This also makes Vogel’s more dramatic memories hit that much harder. Phyllis is brutal with her children – once Carl has come out of the closet, she demands that Martha cut off all ties with him and says terrible things about homosexuality. She tells them secrets that no growing child needs to hear about their parentage. And when Carl and Martha fire back with cold truths about how they feel about Phyllis, we understand exactly where that severity comes from. Parsons and Keenan-Bolger work nicely opposite each other and make their characters’ youthfulness believable. Parsons also shades Carl smartly; we can see him mature as the play progresses, and see him harden in ways that mirror his mother’s. (Toni-Leslie James’ costume design doesn’t just make the three characters look convincing at different ages – it also helps suggest the chasm that exists between the two generations.)

One could not describe Mother Play as a balanced work; Vogel’s allegiance to Martha means we’re always on her side, and it also prevents the playwright from developing both her and Carl to their full potential. (Several scenes that come later also feel less lived-in and approach caricature). But if Phyllis doles out of plenty of battle scars, Vogel also shows that she has her own wounds to contend with, even if in unequal fashion.

And Lange’s commitment to a warts-and-all portrayal that doesn’t just avoid sympathy, it actively leans against it, makes Phyllis all the more fascinating. That scene I referred to earlier comes a little past the midpoint of Mother Play; having estranged herself from Carl and Martha, Phyllis heats up dinner alone, staring out at the audience as ennui eats away at her. She gets up; she sits down. She keeps changing radio stations, and adds hot sauce to her meal until she finds it inedible. She is dissatisfaction incarnate. It’s an aria. It’s ballet. It’s poetry. Vogel’s complicated view of her mother – and by extension, herself – may get cloudy at times, but Lange cuts through it with a transformative performance of astonishing clarity. No wonder one of her Oscars was for Blue Sky.

Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions
Hayes Theater