Fusion Theatre Group

at Raven Theatre

Arnold Wesker’s Four Portraits of Mothers consists of four monologues on the theme of motherhood. In a desperate attempt to report some favorable news about this production, I’m afraid all I can say is that the show is over in less than an hour. Also, there’s a fine Chinese restaurant a couple blocks north of the theater. I recommend the orange beef, with shrimp toast as an appetizer. Bring your own wine or beer. The service, however, is slow, hopefully slow enough that you’ll miss the show altogether.

Not that this is an odious evening of theater. There’s just nothing going for it. Wesker’s script is intelligent enough but it’s only a blueprint. It takes actors with range and personal appeal to make these monologues work, and this cast doesn’t fit that bill. Even with four actors (Wesker wrote the play for one) the play drags. For a while there, as one monologue followed the other, I felt like I was watching auditions, except that the actors neither showcased their talent effectively nor conjured an immediate sense of character.

Ruth (played by Rachel Patterson) is the first mother up. As she packs suitcases she harangues her daughter, whom she for no apparent reason calls “the divine brat.” Ruth also apologizes, and possibly laments, for never having married. Mostly she just bitches in a breathy, forced, overdone sort of way until you want to shout, “Shut up!” If you feel any pity at all, and I didn’t, you’d most likely pity the kid. Finally, after more verbal harassment than you’d care for in a single monologue, Ruth wraps up with a schmaltzy finale: “You may need a daddy, but your mother needs you. And don’t you ever take advantage of that, divine brat.” Aw, shucks.

Batting second is Naomi (Susan Philpot), an old bat who describes herself as “no one in the middle of nowhere with no more chances.” In between reading and watching the telly (this is an English play), Naomi receives phone calls from her concerned nephew, Danny. In fact, she wishes Danny were her son. Well, what can you do? Danny suggests that she cheer herself up by cleaning her apartment, but Naomi remains uninspired by this advice. I also remained uninspired, although Philpot had me going for a moment. Perhaps it was the way she peered at the TV–myopia followed by disgust–that reminded me of my late Aunt Nanny, but even this impression was slight and unengaging. The thing is, I could see when and how the play solicited my empathy. Naomi would wear down the audience’s resistance with some crusty cynicism, and then slip in a needy appeal for pathos. But Philpot’s performance, although technically fine, never came close to fazing me, and I’m usually a sucker for maternal pathos.

The third portrait is composed of more haranguing and self-justification. Miriam (played by Carrie Betlyn) at least has someone definite to talk to (her unseen psychoanalyst), whereas the other characters speak to a mixed audience of unseen characters–us, thin air, who knows? Anyway, Miriam rags on and on with the intensity of someone forcing a difficult bowel movement, blaming herself, her husband, her mother, and herself some more for her failure as a mother. Miriam’s big problem, it seems, is that she was so afraid of making mistakes as a mother that she held everything in–love, anger, the works–until she poisoned herself and alienated her daughters. Hence to her analyst for an emotional enema.

Batting fourth, or cleanup, is Deborah (Julia Fabris), a young woman in love with motherhood and shopping. “I love abundance,” says Deborah as she fills her real shopping cart with imaginary groceries. Yeah, I thought that was nicely ironic too, but it’s not meant to be; it’s just the result of an uncluttered set design. Still, there are more than enough things to love in Deborah’s monologue, and she ticks them off, from homemade pie crust to smelly diapers to “every smelly second” of motherhood. It’s a great list, really. I recall laughing when freshly ironed shirts were mentioned, which doesn’t sound all that funny out of context, but which accrues hilarity when you’ve already sat through 45 minutes of humorless monologues. Yet for other reasons–Fabris’s characterization and enthusiasm, and because this monologue is less emotionally pretentious than the others–I enjoyed this mother the most of all.

As you may have guessed, I’m not recommending this play. The acting is largely boring in itself, and incapable of creating memorable or compelling characters. Emotionally, Jane Page’s direction is flaccid. Visually, it’s unexciting. Two monologues are delivered from a seated position, and the other two are accompanied by nervous, clockwise pacing. Kevin Lind’s set looks great when it’s empty, sort of like a terraced dance floor, but confines the actors to four cramped areas during performance. In short, nothing does what it’s supposed to do.

And neither do you! When’s the last time you called your mother? Oh, you sent her a card. How extravagant! Why don’t you take her out to a nice Chinese restaurant?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Renee S. Elkin.