Finding the Women

When Jane Press was growing up in the 1950s, she noticed two things.  One, that she was living in a man’s world, where it was not usual for mothers to work outside the home, and two, that there were fabulous roles for actresses, women like Shirley Booth who were no longer young starlets but were not yet old.

Today, Press surveys the acting landscape and asks: Where are the women?

“I’m interested in actresses of a certain age,” she says.  “Acting is an art, a craft.  We rehearse, we practice, and over time we presumably get better, more skilled.  But then, in their fifties and sixties, women seem to disappear.  Jessica Lange is now playing old ladies.  Jessica Lange is not an old lady!  We’re relegated to pretending we’re older or younger.  Just at the age where women come into their own, have a wealth of experience and something to say, we’re not being given the roles to say it, except for playing mothers—most often portrayed as trivialized stereotypes or caricatures.”

So instead of looking for roles that didn’t exist, Press had another idea.

“I thought to myself, where are the women my age?” she says.  “Well, I’ll write them.  I’ll write about the most memorable women I knew.”

As a girl, Press would sometimes spend the night at her grandmother’s when she was hosting Mah Jongg games; Little Janie would help set up and serve.  When Press began to write her play, the voices of those women came back to her so clearly it was like taking dictation.  “I remember everything!” she says.  “They had such a keen sense of humor, based upon the foibles of human nature.  I know it’s a cliché, but I would hear them talking in my head, grab a pen and start writing."

Press’s play, “My Mother’s Keeper,” is about those women and the significant events that can shape a family across the generations.  “Every family has its craziness,” she says.  “I decided to trace my family’s craziness back through the matriarchal lineage to the source of ‘What happened.’  This led to an investigation of motherhood itself, with all its inherent blessings and curses that are passed on, most often unconsiously, from mother to daughter.”

The play revolves around a single shattering incident in 1914 which continues to reverberate down through the generations.  “I had written the entire play around it before I was able to go back and address the event head on,” she says.  “That part was enormously challenging.”

Press is interested in what she calls “our matriarchal inheritance.”  “All women are daughters” she says.  “Just as men know that the father-son dynamic is unique, the mother-daughter relationship is a very specific dynamic and that’s what I focused on in my play.”

She began by asking questions: who was my mother? and who was her mother? and who was her mother?

Both her mother and grandmother were actresses; Press herself has been on stage since childhood, carrying on a family tradition.  She vividly remembers her mother taking her to see Dame Judith Anderson perform in “Medea” in a theatre-in-the-round performance when Press was 15.  “It was tremendous—a huge impact,” she says.  Other favorite performances include Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Lotte Lenya in “Cabaret” and Sada Thompson as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”  Press describes the character of Frankie in “Member of the Wedding,” which she performed as young woman, as her favorite role.

Since coming to the Monterey Peninsula eleven years years ago, Press has been very involved in the local theatre scene.  She says that her favorite place to perform has been the Magic Circle Theatre, where she has been in productions of “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Laramie Project,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Rumours,” “My Son the Lawyer Is Drowning,” and “I Hate Hamlet.”  In September, she will appear there in “The Last Romance.”

She also enjoyed appearing in “Sidemen,” at the Cherry Center and “The Day They Shot John Lennon” at the Studio Theater at MPC.  While she was working on her play, she presented a scene from it at the Cherry, as a work-in-progress.  “It got a wonderful reception,” she says.  “The play is about a Jewish family, about women, but both men and women came up to me, and people were saying, ‘I’m Italian, I’m Greek, I’m Irish, and this was my family.’”

In addition to her stage work, Press has focused on theatre education for children since coming to the Peninsula.  Press teaches acting at the Carmel Academy of Performing Arts, and a summer program with the Community Partnership for Youth.  She was also the lead instructor at the Children’s Experimental Theatre for the last five years of its existence, working closely with CET founder Marcia Hovick, who passed away in January.

“I’m carrying on in my own way,” she says, “continuing her work, our work together, and the work I’ve developed.”

A major element of that work has been with girls ages 6-12.  “The last three years I happened to have all girls in my classes,” she says, “and through that I’ve developed a very specific work, helping girls navigate the transition, when bodies start to change.”  Press uses her own experience to help shape how she teaches girls.  “I was born in 1950,” she says.  “We had a childhood then; divorce was rare and grandparents were very much a part of the family.  It all changed when President Kennedy was assassinated.  The country lost its innocence. In the 60s, all hell broke loose.  In the 70s Gloria Steinem was my hero.  Now to see our little girls today so sexualized at such a young age—it assaults the natural sense of modesty they have and robs them of their childhood.  My work is to mitigate that. In my Acting for the Stage class, we explore what it means to be a female human being telling the stories of our lives.”

To help tell the stories of her mother’s, grandmother’s and her great-grandmother’s generation’s lives, Press has assembled a cast of seven women and an eleven-year-old girl.  “The play is dedicated to my grandmother, who will be played by Suzanne Sturn, a fabulous actress and director.  It’s a helluva part.  Well, my grandmother was a helluva woman, and a huge influence on me.”

“My Mother’s Keeper” will be directed by Robin McKee, featuring a group of accomplished actresses that includes the author.

Press hopes that her play will come to be performed in many venues annually on Mother’s Day, in the way that “The Vagina Monologues” has become a popular choice to perform on Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps it is fitting that Press’s daughter is scheduled to give birth during the show’s run, making Press a grandmother herself.

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays at the Carl Cherry Center for the Performing Arts, 4th and Guadeloupe, May 4 – 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  There will be a special Sunday evening performance on Mother’s Day, May 13, at 7:30 p.m.