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Mother: she's with you wherever you go

nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 13, 2011

At the beginning of Mother: she’s with you wherever you go, writer, creator and performer Mary-Beth Manning explains the dichotomy that was her mother, Joan. Growing up in Boston, the young Manning was convinced her mother was in fact two people. One Joan was sweet and tucked her into bed every night. The other was mean with a terrible temper and the daughter lived in fear that this one was trying to poison her. When Joan gets wind of this fear, she says that she would never try to poison her daughter, and in a loving and straightforward way explains the root of her temper. “It’s life,” she says. “It’s overwhelming.” This wonderful statement—seemingly simple yet acutely complex—perfectly describes the whirlwind of emotions at the center of this heartfelt one-woman show.

Mother begins by focusing on Manning’s development as an actress and a woman. This starts when Joan takes her and her sister to The Sound of Music, the beauty of which reveals Manning’s desire to be an actress. Skeptical at first, Joan becomes her biggest fan when Mary-Beth successfully takes on the role of the queen in a school play, and later when she scores her first professional role as Joanne Woodward’s daughter in the Paul Newman-produced See How She Runs. Manning sees her success as a transformation from being her mother’s daughter. This independence grows when she moves to college and then to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress. Even though she is having experiences her mother can only dream of, she spends most of the play struggling to emerge from her mother’s influence. This struggle comes to a head when Joan is diagnosed with cancer and Manning is forced by the guilt, anger and fear of loss to find the point where her mother ends and she begins. This unraveling constitutes the conflict at the heart of the play.

Manning creates a vivid portrait of her mother, embodying her savvy and straightforward spirit with a light Boston accent and a slight bend at the waist. She litters the show with bits of Joan’s wisdom and accentuates them with silence to let them sink in. When discussing men and sex, for example, Joan expresses shock that Manning has slept with a boyfriend who is clearly not right for her. When Manning defends her decision by saying she wanted to figure “the sex thing” out before she got married, her mother replies, “There’s nothing to figure out. You just need to love each other.” Manning lets the statement hang, smiling, almost daring us to find the statement naïve. Silences like these signal important moments that turn up later in the play.

As with real experiences, Manning’s struggle to forge her own identity and the effects of Joan’s illness come across as messy. It was difficult to define the toll Joan’s sickness took on her or the ways they shaped her character. Manning renders their relationship with care and humor, but the core of what she defines as complicated is never truly defined. But Manning tells the story with such skill and immediacy that the telling—while sometimes confusing—is never less than engaging.