Memories on Stage

Memory is inherently theatrical.  When we remember a scene from our past, our childhood, or even from the lives of those who lived before we were born, we are the writers, directors and producers of long-running plays that live in our minds.  For years we may continue to perform these stories on the stage of our memories because of the hold they have on our feelings, attitudes and behaviors.  Yet it can be dangerous to be the exclusive audience of these productions.  By sharing our stories with someone, we raise the curtain on our lives, letting in light, air, and perhaps a different perspective.  In the best of circumstances, this can be a healing exercise.

It can also be the material of art.  In Jane Press’s powerful play “My Mother’s Keeper,” currently playing at the Carl Cherry Center, in Carmel, a woman’s memories and family stories are translated by her writing and by a stellar cast and crew into a dramatic, humorous, and often moving investigation into the legacy of an unforgettable family trauma, underscoring the courage it takes to unravel the shame and silence that can follow in the wake of a painful event.

“My Mother’s Keeper,” directed with sensitivity and insight by Robin McKee, begins with Press alone on stage.  Her opening monologue, wonderfully delivered, establishes the rowdy particulars of her Jewish show-business family in Los Angeles, and introduces us to Ida, Jane’s grandmother and the central figure of the play.  This solo opening crucially reflects the personal nature of Press’s memory-play.  Many characters will be vividly brought to life in subsequent scenes, and yet one could see the entire play as a kind of extended, illustrated monologue, similar to “The Glass Menagerie”—another play about mothers and memory.

The central story of Jane’s monologue revolves around a black bird that had belonged briefly to Marlon Brando before finding itself in Jane’s family’s living room.  The bird’s foul-mouthed antics make for great comedy, but the deeper point is that the bird merely absorbs and repeats the language it hears.  And, the bird lives in a cage.

And so is launched the story of “My Mother’s Keeper,” a tale of four generations of mothers and daughters caught in patterns that are handed down one generation to the next.  After the opening monologue, young Jefdi (the talented Cambell Walker, alternating with Saffi McNulty) listens to her grandmother Ida (Suzanne Sturn) recount stories from her past.  This scene establishes, perhaps at greater length than necessary, the affection between grandmother and granddaughter, a bond that is less complicated than the fraught mother-daughter relationships of the play.

Later, Jefdi assists Ida in setting up for Mah Jong; the subsequent scene is pure delight, as a marvelous cast of women (Diane Grunes, Helaine Treganza, Helene Simkin Jara and Carol Skolnick) play Mah Jong, gossip, eat, smoke, discuss the all-important subject of family, and help tease out further the character of Ida, who would prefer the women to “Play, don’t say.”

For Ida is a complex woman: both indomitable and kind, unyielding yet filled with love.  Her story, and the source of her pain, are revealed in Act Two, in two extraordinary scenes. The first unfolds like an operatic aria, Ida unburdening her heart about a man she loved and lost.  Sturn is simply amazing in this scene, as Ida recounts a sorrowful, spellbinding tale with the kind of dignity, haunted emotion and stoic forebearance that may no longer feel healthy in our therapeutic age, yet which can only be viewed with awe and respect.

The following scene, which I won’t describe, is a theatrical tour-de-force that viscerally plunges the audience into a moment in 1914 when everything would change for a young daughter, and for the daughters who would come after her.

The remainder of the play brings the action closer to the present, as Jane interacts with her brittle mother, Della (the superb Susan Forrest).  It is unusual, and risky, to introduce a major character at this late stage of a play, and yet the choice pays off at the play’s conclusion, when all four generations can face each other in an atmosphere of forgiveness and a mature understanding of the complexities of a mother’s love.  (The beautiful lighting design is by Joanna Hobbs.)

“My Mother’s Keeper” is a play about listening and bearing witness, about enduring in the memories of the next generation, and the next.  If hurt people hurt people, so may healed people heal people.  Such is the gift of art that arises from the creative fire of personal experience.  “I’ll last,” Ida says to reassure a granddaughter frightened by the prospect of the grandmother’s death, for the grandmother knows the child will never forget her.  Press’s beautifully written play, a labor of love and a significant achievement, should also last—it’s the real deal.

“My Mother’s Keeper,” at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, 4th and Guadeloupe, Carmel-by-the-Sea, May 4-27th, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00, with an extra show on Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day) at 7:30.  Tickets can be purchased by calling 831-920-4257 or through ticketguys.com.  To read my previous interview with Press, click here.