IN THE THIRD PRODUCED VERSION of her play My Mother’s Keeper, local actress/playwright Jane Press takes an intense and darkly comic look back across her life as a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother and a grandmother.
The production adroitly exploits the resources of the small Carl Cherry Center stage in Carmel. There are scenes of straightforward character conflict, there are spot-lit soliloquies directed straight into the audience, there’s even a table-load of Mah Jongg playing Jewish matrons who form a Greek chorus of wry comment on the ins and outs of a mother-daughter relationship.
It’s all about the way daughters conflict with their moms but adore their grandmothers. Robin McKee, who has seen the show through each of its local evolutions, makes the point in a powerful closing visual: Jane Press, her mother Thelma and her grandmother Ida stand in a motionless tableau, each directing a searching gaze at her own mother, each receiving the dark scrutiny of her own daughter.
Easily the most successful of these past memories involve the pre-teen Press (played with charm and insight by young Ryan Finfer) and her Grandma Ida (the ever glorious and surprising Teresa Del Piero). Ida may be little Jane’s idol, but she becomes an in-house monster to daughter Thelma (Jane Press in the role of her own actress mother) when, without consulting anyone, Ida yanks the family out of Brooklyn and Thelma out of Broadway walk-ons into a dream of Beverly Hills movie triumphs that falls flatter than an IHOP pancake.
The first act scene in which Ida steamrolls everybody into the move west is as wistfully funny as anything in the show. Del Piero gets her laughs because she is as unwaveringly cheerful about her new world of Hollywood limos and swimming pools as she is impervious to the pain she is causing everybody she’s talking to.
Once the family are precariously settled on the West Coast, the idealistic young Jane takes refuge from her mother’s toxic rages in a series of blissful sleep-overs with Grandma Ida.
This package of relationships works better than any of the others in this production for two reasons. Firstly, Ida’s conflict with her ambitious daughter and chicken soup support for her adoring granddaughter are both presented by specific characters acting and reacting in specific situations. By contrast, other equally traumatic struggles of Thelma with the grown-up Jane (Janice Rocke) are described and bemoaned, either through monologues or in descriptions of bad things that have happened off stage, but are never shown happening. Like it or not, stage action, the interplay between people caught in specific human situations, usually comes across more powerfully in the theater than even the most skillfully written and well acted speeches and descriptions.
And secondly, of course, the “grandma” sequences are played by Teresa Del Piero, who is a hard act to follow on any stage.
In the role of her own troubled Mother, writer Jane Press herself has an almost equally intense power and commitment. She employs flamboyant theatrical gestures which effectively project the pathetic pretensions of this frustrated thespian parent. But we’re still essentially hearing something described rather than seeing it happen.
The main victim of this arrangement of events is the character of the grown-up Jane Press. Janice Rocke is an actress who is effective at reflection and brooding thought but can’t begin to rival the explosions and chutzpah of either Del Piero or Press. The result is that someone who should be at the center of everything that is happening seems more like a weepy and depressed bystander.
The play continues at the Cherry through May 27th, with a special pair of Mother’s Day Performance on May 13 at 2 and 7:30pm.