Mother May I?
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
July 25, 2008
In her solo production Mother May I?, actor Joy Gabriel tells her story of growing up with a fanatical Mormon mother and her eventual struggle to break from this hold. Much of the performance holds the emotional depth of experiences lived, and there is the potential for powerful theatre to be shaped here, but Gabriel has yet to find a way to carve this out of the raw material of her life.
The first half of the show, focusing on Joy as a child, brings the richest material, and could in itself be amplified into a full-length play. We are treated to a glimpse of how Mormon theology is translated in a girl's imagination, as well as the terrifying psychology of a parent becoming, literally, simultaneous with an Almighty God. The initial scenes recounting Mom's relationship with Jesus (with little Joy as third wheel) also afford the work's real comedic moments. Gabriel is at her strongest storytelling here, often transforming completely into "Mom," and stepping out of the narrative occasionally to offer commentary from a present perspective. A fragile, cheerful smile serves as a way in and out of characters, as well as a shield from the trauma being played out; it is a heartbreaking last remainder of the little girl trying always, desperately, to be good, to be what Mom wants.
However, the narrative quickly moves on to the familiar story of following the dream of becoming an actor in New York and discovering the world beyond home. The work cries for an editor as gratuitous scenes follow (such as conversations with the NYU registrar's office), and scenarios (like phone calls with Mom) become repetitive. The staging (by director Bricken Sparacino) further contributes to this sense of a work-in-progress; Gabriel is often wandering on the stage or dashing place to place.
The project of putting on a solo performance is ambitious, in particular for a young actor. Without the energy of other performers for support, Gabriel is still learning to negotiate her way around comic timing, lighting cues, scene transitions, and finding trust in the audience. Though presenting a brave and no doubt cathartic effort, Mother May I? requires more time in the creative incubator, and perhaps further self-reflection, before it can transcend beyond therapeutic exercise. Nonetheless, Gabriel shows that a retooled, mature version of this performance could potentially become a funny and piercing portrayal of religion's capacity to act as a vessel for damage.