By Tulis McCall

Yipes – there is so much packed into this title.  Notice it is not “THE Mother Play.”  It is “Mother Play” As such it is a full blown noun.  Like Cosplay.  This is the story of what siblings Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Carl (Jim Parsons) do when their mother Phyllis (Jessica Lange) is around, and when she is not.  In either case the siblings are reacting to Phyllis: what she HAS done and what she MIGHT do.

We follow this trio for 40 or so years. When we first meet them Martha is 12, Carl 14, Phyllis 37 and the father – well he is in the absent category.  Because Phyllis spends quite a bit of time thinking about him – both the good and the bad – we could call this Mother-Father play.

For me,  however, this story is Daughter Play.  Martha is our guide, our safety net, our Home Plate.  She is our reassuring voice because from the get-go we know she is a survivor.  No matter what happened or how grisly it gets – Martha changes.  Martha survives.  We know her brother does not.

Photo By Joan Marcus

This is a play about evictions we are told, and while that may be the case, it is easy to get lost in what number eviction we are experiencing.  The threesome begin their tale in a basement custodial apartment where the rent is reduced if they take out the trash.  The trash is a whole other tale in itself and whoever designed “the infestation” effects should get a special award, even though it takes us far south of the story.

As the evictions role out the family moves up the apartment food chain, and while this would appear to be a good thing, Phyllis’s outlook on life does not change.  Neither does Carl’s.  For me this is where the play bogs down and rests in a kind of stasis.  I thought of Vogel’s play “How I Learned to Drive” recently produced in New York.  That play is an unending stream of subtleties that, when added up, shakes us to our core.  There are few subtleties in Mother Play, and we could use a few of them to interrupt the barrage of moments marinated in misery and resentment.

In spite of Phyllis’s narcissism, her children escape her grasp. Or perhaps we could say they are no longer changing to meet her needs.  As time passes Carl becomes a mentor and protector for Martha.  While Phyllis hands Martha stories of sad lesbians, Carl counters with Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan, the Bloomsbury Group and Gloria Steinem.

In 1968 Carl leaves for Johns Hopkins with parting advice for Martha:  “I want you to stay out of this house as much as you can. Take after school programs. Volunteer. Go out for school plays. Stay out of the house.”  You could feel the visceral reaction of the audience as we recognized – perhaps for the first time – that we had chosen a similar path outside of our own homes.  The play is full of moments like this where, like it or not, we see our lives displayed on that stage.  Perhaps our was not as extreme.  Perhaps it was worse.  No matter – the scent is there.  “Glass Menagerie ” anyone?

In college, Carl comes into his own sexual identity.  This pushes Phyllis, when she is not sucking down martinis, over the edge and the next “Eviction” happens because she will not allow a gay son to live under the same roof.

Something to remember here.  In 1968 homosexuality was illegal.  Full stop.  Not that it did not exist.  It did.  But not out in the open where people could kiss in public or even hold hands.  So Phyllis’s reaction was not unusual.  Her lack of understanding, however, drives a further wedge between her and the children, especially when Martha declares her independence as well.

Soon Phyllis is alone.  Nothing to be done about that.  As her life closes in on her there is a sort of rapprochement between the three.  She no longer has the strength to fight them – or so we think.  It is Martha who stays the course and cares for her family.  She has changed from that 12 year old kid packing boxes for each eviction into a mature loving woman.  She had no real training for that.  And she does it anyway. Keenan-Bolger gives a sensitive and subtle performance that appears effortless.  Martha is the linchpin that is overlooked until we reach the end of the trail.

Martha Play. Indeed.

MOTHER PLAY, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Tina Landau. 

WITH  Celia Keenan-Bolger, Jessica Lange, and Jim Parsons.

Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Jen Schriever, and sound design by Jill BC Du Boff.

Through June 16 at the HAYES Theatre, 240 W. 44th Street.  Tickets HERE