Footsteps Theatre Company

at Raven Theatre

There should be a statute of limitations for the effects of an unhappy childhood. A point at which you no longer hear the internalized voice of a heavy parent quietly whisper, “You’re gonna mess this up too.” Consider the alternative: no matter how far you travel in time or space or how successful you become, you never stop trying to make the present pay for the past. Short of rewriting your own memories, there’s no currency that can discharge that debt.

The obvious solution–get away before the damage sinks in for good (and evil). That’s the fight-or-flight option facing the three Briggs girls in Lee Blessing’s well-named Independence, a play about breaking away from Mom and Independence, Iowa. The eldest daughter has already flown this cuckoo’s nest: after a four-year absence, Kess, now a Minneapolis music historian living with her lover Susan, returns home because she has just learned that her mother Evelyn almost killed her sister Jo. (Kess had provided similar crisis management when the mother had to be temporarily committed.)

Jo wasn’t seriously injured, and Kess, who’s beyond revenge, contemplates a rescue. To establish an illusory freedom and escape a mother who always expects but never gives, Jo falls for a louse who dumps her once she carries his child. Jo’s plight not only echoes Evelyn’s own past, it plays right into her plans; fearing Jo will leave her as Kess did, Evelyn has already used her mental problems to hold Jo at home–now a baby will keep her there as well.

About to graduate from high school, the youngest–and toughest–sister, Sherry, feels no guilt whatever about wanting to escape a town and home that never change. Declaring her independence by sleeping around (and becoming an unwed mother at 15), Sherry thinks she’s found her way out when one of her many pickups, a tattooed biker and professional insect photographer, says he likes her sensual lawn sculptures and intends to introduce her to the New York art world as a “post-postmodern infantilist.” (This is one line Sherry hasn’t heard before.)

The sins of the mother are visited on the daughters–with compound interest. Endlessly bitter about her own past, Evelyn becomes a frightening picture of her daughters’ possible futures, a scared and disappointed woman who’s convinced herself that “each generation destroys itself for what comes after.” (Two of the daughters end up betrayed by men, almost as if Evelyn somehow set them up to repeat her history.) The sad truth is that any love offered Evelyn will never be enough–since it’s not from the people who cheated her of it in the first place. Anyway, there’s no discharging a retroactive debt; the point is not to pass it on to your children.

Though he lays out his crises fairly obviously, Blessing avoids the story’s soap-opera temptations. He even manages to mine compassion and humor out of the daughters’ clumsy efforts at self-liberation (like Sherry’s flippant survivor wisecracks) as well as the mother’s devious attempts to play one daughter against the other.

Sandra Grand’s Footsteps Theatre Company staging mines a bit less from the script than it could, mainly because Carol Whelan’s Evelyn doesn’t muster the combination of cagey charm and emotional hunger that’s needed to justify the daughters’ dilemmas. Whelan seems more distracted than desperate; it beats doing Joan Crawford, but it doesn’t give the daughters enough to react against.

Making too much out of a reference to Kess’s corpselike appearance as a child, Vita Dennis makes her awfully humorless and dour. Wanting to show how much Kess has freed herself of her mother’s clutches, Dennis too easily overlooks the quirks Blessing built into her character. Kess’s macabre interest in the ghoulish lyrics of Scottish folk ballads demonstrates a dark side Dennis chooses to ignore.

Colleen O’Hara fares better as pregnant and proud Jo. A much more dramatized role, O’Hara’s decent daughter really looks torn between Evelyn’s smothering dependence and her own yearning for some unconditional love. Finally, Marge Royce turns her gutsy, irreverent Sherry into a life force and a half; by the time Sherry spits out “Truth is gross!” we know just what she means.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.