Transient Theatre

Sylvia Plath’s suicide at the peak of her career left a legacy of questions that have attracted a cult obsessed with trying to find answers. The people she left behind often seem to be victims of this cult. Plath wrote highly personal poetry, and many academics (rightly or wrongly) use it to analyze her relationships with her mother, her husband, and even her dead father to determine what drove her to kill herself. For example, Plath’s line “Off, off eely tentacle. There is nothing between us” has been used to show that Aurelia Plath was a clingy mother. Yet she wrote of the birth of her brother, “I who for two and a half years had been the center of a tender universe felt the axis wrench and a polar chill immobilize my bones.” Imagine what Freudian-minded English PhDs could do with that.

Possibly in an attempt to clear her name and set the record straight on her relationship with her daughter, Aurelia Plath published Letters Home, a collection of Sylvia’s letters written to her from 1950 to 1963. All told, Sylvia wrote 696 letters to her family during those years, most of them to her mother. One thing that shines through all of them is her penchant for the dramatic. She never seemed content with simply existing: “I am the most busy and happy girl in the world,” she writes during her sophomore year at Smith College. “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon.” Not much later she writes that the math formulas in her science classes are so agonizing that she is seriously considering suicide.

Rose Leiman Goldemberg’s adaptation of this volume of letters works surprisingly well as a play, because Sylvia’s language is so lucid and dramatic and because the story of her life is so fascinating (there is no real dialogue; Sylvia never saved her letters from her mother). On one level it reads like a 1950s fairy tale, covering the years when she was at Smith, when she won awards and was published, and when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle. Mixed in with all this glory are accounts of her first suicide attempt, her shock therapy, and the breakup of her marriage to Ted Hughes. The play ends with her death in 1963.

It seems odd that Transient Theatre’s production of Letters Home has no opinion on Sylvia’s relationship with her mother. We see Sylvia’s side of her story, but as told to her mother and as selected and edited by her mother. It’s almost as if director Lisa Slabach was afraid to venture into the murky waters of mother-daughter, wife-husband relationships. Instead she presents the surface of Sylvia’s words and her mother’s responses, just as Aurelia would have liked them to be presented. Any tension that might have existed, any real conflict is underplayed. As a result, we see no growth or development of their relationship.

That’s just no fun. The relationship between Aurelia and her daughter is a fascinating one, and it’s a bit frustrating to watch Maureen Michael (Sylvia) and Kate Harris (Aurelia) politely glide over it.

For example, in the months preceding her suicide Sylvia writes to her mother, “I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life.” Michael plays it straight, with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed happiness, just as she does when Sylvia is a sophomore in college. If this happiness is a mask for her agony, we don’t see it. Maybe Sylvia didn’t want her mother to worry about her. Maybe she was tired of her mother meddling in her personal life. This production doesn’t consider the issue.

Then again, maybe Slabach and her cast simply concluded that Sylvia was truly happy before she took her life. And that Aurelia was simply a caring mother who only wanted happiness for her talented but disturbed daughter. One can certainly make a case for such a theory. The problem is, it doesn’t make for very engaging theater. Thankfully, the events in Plath’s life are dramatic enough to keep us listening.