The Motherlode

Sweat Girls

at Lifeline Theatre, through July 17

By Justin Hayford

In our culture, it’s hard to be a mother and a person at the same time. We’ve envisioned motherhood as a state of idealized nonpersonhood: the perfect mother is fully knowable through her relationships with her children, her husband, and her home–but never as herself. Mothers who “want it all”–in other words, who want to pursue their own interests while raising children–are suspect, inviting personal burnout and family ruin. While men must maintain careers, hobbies, and an interest in sports to be real fathers, women have to give up nearly everything to become true mothers.

The rigidity of these gender roles is beginning to lessen, of course. A stay-at-home dad is not the sissy freak he was 20 years ago–although a working mother is still a social threat, especially if she’s poor and/or unmarried. But during the late 50s and 60s, when the Sweat Girls’ mothers were changing diapers and warming formula, social roles offered little room to maneuver. So it’s only natural that the audacious, irreverent Sweats–monologuists who’ve spent six years refusing to be nice onstage–would try to liberate their mothers. The effort backfires gloriously: their failure to do so is ten times more enlightening and entertaining than any imagined success.

Three years ago the Sweat Girls teamed up with filmmaker Joe Winston to begin work on The Motherlode, an evening of monologues about mothers and daughters. First they interviewed their mothers on video–or, more accurately, interviewed each other’s mothers, a much safer endeavor. Winston chronicles the project’s inaugural moments in the show’s opening video segment; he and the Sweat Girls pack a car with video equipment and head down the highway, arms flapping out the windows while surfer music blares. Once the interviews were completed, however, the tapes sat gathering dust for a couple years; Dorothy Milne, cofounder of the group and director of The Motherlode, explains that the women were freaked out about doing pieces about their mothers.

It’s not hard to guess why. Learn your mother’s life story and in all likelihood you’ll learn how much she gave up on your account. When Cindy Hanson mentions in her monologue that the attention her mother lavished on her as a child was one of the primary causes of her parents’ divorce, you’re tempted to plug your ears and hum, fearing that each subsequent performer will reactivate all the mother guilt you thought you’d worked through ten years ago in therapy.

Rest easy: The Motherlode is surprisingly lighthearted given the subject matter. In fact, it would be easy to dismiss the show as feel-good summer entertainment. As the woman who attended with me pointed out, none of the performers ever expresses anger toward her mother, a fact my companion found incomprehensible. The only negative emotions the Sweat Girls admit to are embarrassment, sadness, and passing guilt. But they simply aren’t all that interested in how they feel about their mothers–and perhaps we should be thankful for that. All the anger and resentment in the world may stew in these women’s guts, but such emotions are largely irrelevant to this show.

It seems the Sweat Girls are out to answer a different question–what kind of person is my mother?–based on a doubly subversive premise: that mothers are people, and that their personhood matters. So all they do is present 15-minute profiles of their moms. We learn where their mothers grew up, how they feel about their parents, which family memories are most powerful to them. And we catch glimpses of them in Winston’s videos.

But in typical Sweat Girl fashion, the mundane becomes numinous as carefully chosen details suggest compelling portraits. Hanson tells us her mother, Betty, applies makeup the night before a big trip and sleeps in it, has a $300 mink coat for her miniature apricot pedigreed poodle, was once evicted from an apartment for repeated late-night vacuuming, and “adores difficult shoes.” When the neatly coiffed, well-tailored Betty pops up on the video screen, talking in a thick Texas drawl about her crush on Jack Lord, she’s exactly who we expect her to be. You don’t need to know much more about Jenifer Tyler’s mother than this: at a barbecue she threw the day after Princess Diana was killed, she ended grace with “Lord, please keep Prince William and little Harry in your heart. This is not a happy time for them. Enjoy!”

The Sweat Girls are equally adept at capturing family life in eidetic imagery. Tyler crystallizes her parents’ relationship when she describes her father unwittingly setting fire to the backyard while trying to burn leaves; her mother grudgingly summons the fire department as her father sits and watches television, oblivious. Martie Sanders gives us her entire family history in one anecdote. She’s rafting down a river with her parents, her father paddling indiscriminately and shouting in perpetual panic, her mother sitting stoically in an ill-fitting life jacket. To raise everyone’s spirits, Sanders tries to get her parents to sing along with every old song she can think of. Then the raft pops and they all sink, laughing uncontrollably.

For two hours, the Sweat Girls simply string together anecdotes like these. Tellingly, Milne opens the show by talking about her mother planting and replanting trees in her backyard, moving them from here to there every year or so; each performer does much the same thing, fiddling with small, domestic incidents, shuffling little pieces of their mothers’ lives around. None of the individual monologues moves in any discernible direction, and the evening as a whole can best be described as one thing after another. The Sweat Girls have never shown much interest in structure, but then most of their shows have been semihaphazard and unfinished by design. With this fully scripted, fully memorized, fully designed show, they prove themselves confirmed meanderers.

That lack of structure may sap some of the evening’s momentum, but it also gives The Motherlode a useful air of informality and candor. If it weren’t for the ornately framed video screen suspended above the stage and the microphone planted down center, there would be little difference between watching The Motherlode and sitting around in the Sweat Girls’ kitchen chatting. The performers provide no theatrical gimmicks and few writerly flashes. They give themselves nothing to hide behind; the show sinks or swims depending upon whether we like them or not.

Actually, the show’s success depends upon how well we like their mothers, for the Sweat Girls always remain in the background, even as they stand front and center gabbing into the microphone. And given the exquisite portraits they paint, it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with their subjects. The pictures may be distorted, sanitized, and even a bit romanticized at times, but they’re no less winning.

Perhaps the artists’ most intelligent choice is to include video excerpts of their mothers, letting them speak for themselves: in these snippets, the mothers display a sincerity that puts their daughters’ candor to shame. Each of the mothers seems an open book, completely lacking in guile, never needing to camouflage a moment of vulnerability with an ironic quip or sardonic joke. They are unapologetically themselves, while their daughters, in typical 90s fashion, seem to be performing even in their most truthful moments.

The videos also make it clear that if any generation of women is “liberated,” it’s the mothers’. These women know how to make their own clothes, cook spectacular meals, trim trees, maintain gardens, and generally outsmart their husbands. And they do these things with a kind of hyperpracticality as absurd as it is endearing; Jane Blass’s mother, Sue, once dressed up a pair of old high heels by covering them with Elmer’s glue and rolling them in gold glitter. Jane shows us the shoes, which are indeed fabulous. Time and again the video clips show the Sweat Girls tagging along behind their elders, overwhelmed by their expertise. These mothers may have been confined to tiny domestic spheres, but they achieved the kind of sovereignty over their lives that most of their daughters’ generation can only imagine.

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