wet earth

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.

Balancing the Books

It’s been a long and thrilling affair, but circumstances have changed and I have decided that it is time to break up.  It is a momentous decision; I am, after all, ending one of the most significant relationships of my adult life.  Breaking up will be hard to do, but if I am going to keep my conscience intact I am left with no choice.

I am breaking up with Amazon.com.

I remember the first time I ordered from Amazon.  It was a whimsical picture book about two hippopotamuses called George and Martha.  The year was 1997, and the book was a gift for my then-boyfriend.  I recall the ease and delight of the purchase: I was in my campus office in Washington, DC, and with a few clicks of the computer mouse the order was complete and the book was on its way to James’s apartment in New York.  Wow!  So easy!

I was an early fan of Amazon, buying books and CDs, writing reviews, enjoying the sense that there was a new place—the Internet in general, and Amazon in particular—for book-obsessed folks like me to share opinions and foster a new and enthusiastic brand of community.

As the years passed, and the consequences of e-commerce began to be felt on local bookstores, I made an effort to balance my Amazon shopping with purchases at other bookstores.  But all those impulse buys, or those more obscure titles I knew I was unlikely to find in an actual store?  Point, click, you’re done.  I knew that Amazon’s success was in direct proportion to the decline of independent bookstores, but like most Americans addicted to comfort and convenience, I forged ahead with my computer mouse and my credit card, consequences be damned.

It was the demise of Borders that finally got my attention.  I loved our local Sand City Borders.  Of course, before Amazon came along, Borders and Barnes & Noble were considered the “bad guy” corporate chains victimizing the small independents.  And that was likely true.  But our local Borders was also a gathering place with a huge selection, a pleasing environment, a place to browse at leisure with a massive inventory of periodicals, plenty of items of local interest, a cafe, and clean bathrooms.  Now it is gone, its building a ghostly husk.

Meanwhile, Amazon has grown into a corporate giant, whose every latest press release sends terror and dread through the corridors of traditional publishing.  With Kindle, their e-reader, they are attempting to lower standard prices for books in such a way that a new generation of readers may think that a $25 book should only cost $10.  That is like saying that a dinner and a glass of wine in a nice restaurant should only cost as much as a latte and muffin at Starbucks.

This is where we are going as a culture, and I am as much to blame as anyone.  Independent bookstores of America, I am truly sorry.  To make amends, I have decided to limit my book purchases to local bookstores.  On the Monterey Peninsula, I especially like River House Books, at the Carmel Crossroads Shopping Center.  They are friendly, knowledgeable, have a great selection which is beautifully displayed, and will order any book in print.  They do not offer the kinds of discounts found on Amazon, but by ordering in person, I am less likely to buy books on impulse.  And the tax stays in California, which, God knows, certainly needs it.

I know I am swimming against the tide.  (Though I am not alone.)  Not long ago, Amazon produced an iPhone app that would allow shoppers to scan the titles of books in physical bookstores, to calculate how much they would save by buying the book through Amazon.  That is not a fair business practice, that is predatory capitalism.  But the opposite can also work: I still visit Amazon to read reviews and decide whether or not I wish to read a particular book.  But now, my list in hand, I go to a physical bookstore and buy it.  (Or I borrow it from the public library.)

Is my little action, my break-up, meaningful in any way?  That is a question we all have to ask, in the face of global warming and economic injustice and other serious problems our “leaders” are too busy raising campaign funds to address.  I believe in following my gut:  Don’t analyze, don’t rationalize, just follow through on the impulse, that persistent voice of inner intuitive wisdom, to make the world a better place, no matter how small or how inconsequential one’s choices may seem.  Does it all add up?  I don’t know.  I do know that my formerly beloved Amazon is now part of the wild and sick imbalance in our society, pursuing corporate decisions that do terrible harm to the ecosystem of books and writers and readers that is my natural home.

And if the day ever comes when the small, local, independent bookstores become so powerful that their sales dwarf Amazon’s, well, a change of mind to redress the balance is just a point and a click away.  Sometimes love is like that.

(Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff for the photograph of Borders.)

Listening for the Flow

At the beginning of my improv class in Santa Cruz yesterday, as we were warming up by massaging our jaws and shaking the tension out from our faces, one of the teachers said that she had recently listened to a radio interview featuring a trauma specialist.  The specialist had gone with a team to a war-torn foreign country, to work with people who had been exposed to horrible conflict and suffering.  And yet, according to the trauma specialist, in her experience the bodies of most Americans are bound up with more tension—more trauma—than those of people in other countries, even people whose lives have been affected by dislocation or violence or war.

Why is this so?  What are the specific qualities of American culture, habits and thought-patterns that lead so many of us to hold tension in our bodies?  One might think of these qualities, perhaps restlessness, or competitiveness, or isolation, as an invisible force, as silently persistent as a thought, flowing as if throughout our American air and water, shaping us from the moment we are born—indeed, likely before we are born.

I imagine that other qualities shape other cultures in other places.  Last Friday evening, at the conclusion of a glorious concert by the Pavel Haas String Quartet at All Saints Church, in Carmel, the woman sitting in front of me turned around and remarked that she thought that other countries must take music more seriously.  The four performers of the Pavel Haas are from Czechoslovakia, and what she meant was that it was evident, from the specific quality of sound they produced, that their lives—not just their training in a conservatory, but their childhood, and their parents’ childhoods, and so on down the ancestral line—had taken form in an environment in which classical music is as pervasive and vital as air and water.

The Pavel Haas, presented by the Carmel Music Society (and shown at right in the Prague State Opera House), played with a warm, burnished tone.  It is a sound I have heard in other European ensembles: at concerts featuring the Ysaÿe and the Fine Arts Quartets, on recordings by the Talich Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano.  I find that many American ensembles offer a bracing, zippy, lively energy to the mostly European repertoire of classical music, and this often has the stimulating effect of making old masterworks feel fresh and new.  Yet there is an undeniable comfort to be savored in the rounder, more mellow and mature sound that I often hear in chamber ensembles from Europe.

The Pavel Haas played three works: Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet, Shostakovich’s No. 7, and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”  The Tchaikovsky benefited the most from the group’s golden tone.  The four musicians played with seamless integrity and a kind of creamy lyricism, imparting a steadily flowing through-line to the work’s romantic themes.  In the Schubert, they offered a performance of admirable balance; the darkly sonorous weight of Schubert’s chordal textures, which can sometimes sound too chunky if the players are over-enthusiastic, were here played in a manner that respected heft but also grace.  I was reminded of a classical building, heavy columns supporting a structure whose main effect is to suggest lightness and space.

It was in the Shostakovich that the limitations of the Pavel Haas’s sound palette were heard.  This quartet, written in 1960 but brooded over since the death of the composer’s wife, in 1954, is a short, incisive portrait of loving grief, a raw meditation on fate by a man who would express a lifetime of inner torment in his music.  Yet the roundness of the musicians’ combined tone worked against the performance here; the edges of Shostakovich’s great work were softened, even muted.  The music was not unenjoyable, yet I had the impression of experiencing it as if through a kind of liquid veil.  I wanted to hear more grief and less beauty.

Sometimes what a composer wants, what a musican wants, and what a listener wants all seem to merge in a vivid and shared experience that is often described as “beyond words”—it was not uncommon at premieres of Shostakovich’s works in Soviet Russia for audiences to openly, collectively weep, or to applaud for extraordinary durations in a kind of frenzy that goes beyond mere catharsis.

The applause in Carmel was passionate and grateful, especially for the Tchaikovsky and the Schubert.  After the concert, I reflected on how strange it is to try to write an objective account of a musical performance.  Live music is not like a book or an art object that can be studied and considered at length.  Music is a brief experience in time, as passing as a cloud or an emotion or a thought.  All sorts of ephemeral phenomena may influence how we feel about a performance.  The venue, the weather, the time of year, the time of day, one’s age and physical condition and mood and circumstances, whether there are friends in the auditorium, one’s feeling of affiliation with the presenting organization.  The contingent and contextual background materials of our lives may be as important as any particular training or skill or aptitude in assessing a performance.

Such things are like water.  With care and luck, over time, the flow we allow into our lives will bring ease and vitality, not tension and suffering.  Before the concert, I walked for several blocks below the church.  The air was warm, the evening sky over the ocean was the color of orange sherbet, and the gentle roar of the waves rolled up the little sloping town through the silhouetted trees.  My stride was comfortable.  I was looking forward to a wonderful evening of music, and that is what I heard.