Photo by Michael Brosilow
It’s not often that I leave a theatre completely shaken, especially by a play that frequently had made me laugh. It’s even less often that a thing like that occurs and I find my mind so frozen that I have no words to explain why I am shaken. That, however, is the emotional reaction I had to Tuckie White’s harrowing new play Motherhouse, now playing at Rivendell Theatre. For all of its humorous moments, this play ends up ripping your heart out through your eyes and ears. I suspect that I am not the only one who will leave the theatre knowing that something transformative has taken place but still thinking what the hell did I just watch?
Directed with a deft hand by Azar Kazemi, Motherhouse takes place in the kitchen of a woman who has recently died of cancer. (The set, designed by Lauren M. Nichols, is absolutely lovely.) Her daughter Annie (Jessica Ervin in a massively vulnerable performance) has invited her four aunts—Mom’s sisters—to learn some stories she doesn’t know that would make the eulogy she is trying to write more personal. She has no idea what powerful demons will be dredged up as these women—each broken in a different way—open their collective memories.
One by one, the sisters wander in: the deliciously unfiltered Weezie (Meighan Gerachis in a wild, unhinged performance); the quiet, unassuming Tucker (Mary Cross); the desperately needy Lizzie (Tara Mallen); and the one that got away, Barb (Jane Baxter Miller). Barb was “kidnapped” (according to her birth family) by a Scientologist when she was a teenager and ended up becoming one herself; she has been one for decades as the play opens, and her sisters can’t really forgive her for joining the “cult” and turning her back on the family.
Never named, and referred to only in reference to the others—”Annie’s mom” or “our sister”—the dead woman’s presence is still palpable, and that is not due to the bizarre fluctuations of light and electricity that insist on occurring when she is discussed. (Or maybe it is. Something weird is going on here.) Whenever Annie is alone onstage, she reads surreptitiously from her mother’s diary. She and her aunts conjure memories of the past through stories that help build a picture of the oldest child in a religiously fundamentalist family, a child who rebelled by trying to get away with whatever she could to subvert the overbearing rule of her father, all the while acting as surrogate mother to her younger sisters. She was a complicated person, and her real essence is never made clear, but she loved her daughter…who still senses her presence in the house “like an atom bomb…of love.”
Each aunt has her own baggage; none of them has truly escaped their father’s legacy. Weezie’s need to be the focus of everyone’s attention while maintaining an inability to focus on anything—complete with out-of-the-blue disconnected utterings and lots of wine—is just one sign of her inner turmoil. Lizzie’s despondency at always being left out—she’s the youngest and constantly needs to remind the others that, yes, she was there that time, and, yes, she does remember—manifests in a tormented need for inclusion. She shows up with tons of food that is completely unnecessary and spends the play trying to get others to eat it to feel connected. Tucker is overwhelmed by these two powerful personalities (three if we include Annie’s mother, who seems to have been the most powerful of all). The fact that both Weezie and Lizzie are helplessly lost doesn’t prevent the more unobtrusive Tucker from disappearing beside them.
As for Barb, the aunt that Annie hardly knows because she’s been fastened to Scientology for the younger woman’s entire life, she surprisingly appears to be the most intuitive and least needy of them all. Alone with Annie, she listens to her niece’s internalized pain without an agenda while the others (especially Weezie and Lizzie) make everything about themselves, and unlocks blocked memories—her own as well as Annie’s—that help to explain a lot.
This is the kind of play that rolls along in a semi-comic vein for a long time as it lays quiet hints of the explosion to come in front of the audience. When it does come, it is utterly earned. White’s ear for dialogue is brilliant; she knows how several intense individuals (especially sisters) act and speak in conversation. Weezie, for example, rarely completes a thought without shifting direction five times. It’s complicated to listen to, but it feels as realistic as the thunderstorm outside that Gabrielle Strong and Victoria Delorio conjure up or the bizarre intrusion of a full-volume Dionne Warwick song (perfectly, it is “Always Something There to Remind Me”) that suddenly plays upstairs after each temporary blackout.
It’s also the kind of play that, even if it leaves you momentarily emotionally paralyzed, makes you feel that you’ve been peering in on something private, like the many things that you’d like to remain private in your own life. Everyone’s lives are affected by secrets, by family, or by family secrets. Not all of them are as explosive as the “atom bomb” unleashed here, but things buried have a nasty tendency to surface and then, in the words of the sisters’ steely father, “a banquet of consequences you shall face.”
Motherhouse is playing at the Rivendell Theatre (5779 N. Ridge, Chicago). Tickets are available from the theatre’s website; the show plays through May 7. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.