Mommies Dearest

Jeremy Cohen doesn’t seem like the kind of director who’d embrace a show about motherhood. At Bailiwick Repertory he staged Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, a lurid play about young hipsters that involved nudity, sadomasochism, and heroin addiction. As artistic director of Naked Eye Theatre Company he tackled Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, a complex psychodrama about four people confined to a quarantine house during a plague in 17th-century London. But Cohen’s new project is the American premiere of Mom’s the Word, an Australian hit in which a cast of six women deliver a series of monologues interspersed with dramatic vignettes. “I found it very raw and human,” says Cohen of the script, “the kind of show that would play well to a Chicago crowd.” He’ll find out soon enough: the show begins previews October 3 at the 450-seat main stage at the Royal George Theatre Center.

In true 90s fashion, Mom’s the Word grew out of a support group. Six actors in Vancouver had agreed to meet every Saturday and talk about their experiences as mothers, and as they shared their thoughts and feelings a script began to take shape. In 1998 the group performed the piece at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where it was so successful that it spawned an Australian production with a new cast. Mum’s the Word, as it was then titled, ran for over a year in Melbourne and toured Australia for two more. “It’s a show that all women are going to love,” predicts Michael Sampliner, one of the New Yorkers mounting the Royal George production. Earlier this year Sampliner resigned from the giant talent agency International Management Group, where he was vice president of the arts and entertainment division, to go into business with his wife, producer Lisa Albright; the couple are backing Mom’s the Word themselves, in partnership with the New York office of London-based Backrow UK Productions.

Sampliner and Albright interviewed several young Chicago directors, looking for what Sampliner describes as a “rising young superstar,” and Cohen’s certainty that the show would connect with a local audience sold them on the idea of premiering the play here. They’ve cast the show with six locals who are all mothers as well: Rengin Altay, Megan Moore Burns, Monica Mary McCarthy, Stephanie Shaw, Nancy Voigts, and Jacqueline Williams. Carol Fox and Associates has been hired to market the show, and while it’s an unusual property, it’s not without precedent. In 1994 stand-up comedian Rob Becker came to town with Defending the Caveman, a one-man show about gender relations that he’d developed in west coast comedy clubs and polished in Dallas and Washington, D.C. The show was a smash, playing for five months at the Briar Street Theatre, moving to the Shubert, and eventually making it to Broadway. Fox thinks Mom’s the Word can reach past the normal theatergoing audience just as Becker’s show did, and it can’t hurt that theater tickets tend to be purchased by the woman of the house. Despite a new off-Loop record of $54.50 set by the Apollo Theater’s revival of The Odd Couple, Sampliner and Albright intend to keep the top ticket for Mom’s the Word below $40.

Dinner’s Off

Last month North-light Theatre was planning to open its 2000-2001 season with the Chicago premiere of Donald Margulies’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy Dinner With Friends. According to managing director Richard Friedman, the company had a “verbal agreement” with Mitchell Maxwell, the show’s New York producer, but last week Friedman learned that the deal was off. “They told me they were talking to the Nederlander Organization about possibly doing the show downtown.” Instead the season will open September 27 with Shelagh Stephenson’s family drama An Experiment With an Air Pump. On the upside, Friedman reports that Northlight’s recent production of the musical Side Show grossed $400,000 during its eight-week run, a box office record for the company.

Cleaning Out the Stable

Veteran talent agent Harrise Davidson will retire next month after more than 22 years in the business. In a recent letter to PerformInk, Davidson cited personal health issues, the stagnating market, and professional burnout as motivating factors in her decision. Over the years she’s helped many Chicago actors gain a foothold in a notoriously slippery industry, including Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. Surveying the city’s theater industry, she observes that actors have more opportunities to perform now but find it harder to make a living and often leave for New York or LA once they get a few credits on their resumés. Davidson will continue to manage a handful of clients from a home office, including actor/director Jim Corti, actress Irma P. Hall, and costume designer Virgil Johnson.

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