During one wrenching scene near the end of Lee Blessing's Independence, the oldest sister, Kess, tries to convince her unstable mother and two bitter siblings to join in a civil afternoon tea and say positive things about one another. According to the town psychiatrist, she insists, it's more important to go through the motions of being a happy family than to actually be one. Earlier in the play, a game of Scrabble with Mom turns suitably symbolic: Kess spells out the word "agony," mother swiftly follows with "me."
The endless agonies, obligations, and resentments suffered in the mother-daughter battle pose tricky dramatic problems. First of all, many audiences - wounded survivors themselves - find the subject matter about as entertaining as napalm. Then there's an elusive nature to this brand of pain and guilt, whether inflicted or accepted: the more subtle, the more lethal, and the harder to portray through obvious actions. Unlike the stereotype bitch mother, bullying her family in a booming voice with frying pan in hand, the guilt specialist controls loved ones through tiny tears creeping from the corners of her eyes, a mere hint of pain, or a lapse into temporary illness. Mother as victim becomes chief puppeteer.
Since Blessing specializes in detailing difficult relationships, his play almost rises to the challenge. In the famed A Walk in the Woods, he humanized a Soviet and American diplomat at crucial peace negotiations, long before the name Yeltsin was ever heard. In Eleemosynary, he examined three generations of eccentric women trying to make some sense of each other. Independence - which premiered in 1984 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville - again tackles the limiting legacies handed down from mother to her female brood. Just as Evelyn Briggs (the maternal Machiavelli in this piece) explains, family means each generation destroying itself willingly for the next.
Evelyn's needs are simple. Of her three daughters - each almost a decade apart in age - only the wimpy middle child, Jo, fits the mold as perfect companion. Kess, an academic lesbian who temporarily placed Mom in a mental institution four years before, finally comes home for a visit, but her sincerity remains in question. Sherry, the youngest, has grown into such a nightmare of rebellion and pornography that Evelyn ignores her, behaving as though the girl is dead and there's no point talking to a ghost.
But devoted Jo plans her life around Mom, just as Evelyn likes it, even turning down a marriage proposal from the father of her unborn child. When Jo tries to change her mind, however, Mom "accidentally" breaks cartons of dishes, and cracks her daughter's neck.
The spurious violence, enacted not only by Evelyn upon her daughters but by each sister on the others, rings of a truth so harsh it's sometimes hard to hear. With artful, casual cuts, Blessing spares no pain. Even Jo becomes intractable after enough bruising. Sherry defines the word lost, Kess refreshes her bitterness, and Evelyn never learns to love, in the sad tradition of too many Mommie Dearests.
Comprising two acts filled with many chunky scenes, the play sometimes gets its needle stuck in bitter confrontations and futile attempts at reconciliation. It also takes considerable time to gather steam, and when it does, a measure of hot air creeps in. Conversely, as the stakes rise, anyone with a history of emotional blackmail can feel the flames. Several lines made me squirm, and brought back events not enthusiastically remembered.
Independence marks the first production by The New River Repertory, a group of local dramatic veterans uniting for the sake of art rather than cash, operating out of the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre. Under the Equity Members Project Code, these professionals cannot advertise or charge high ticket prices (in fact, they can only accept donations). In spite of the handicaps, they promise future stagings of seldom-done gems, usually neglected by mainstream houses. This initial outing suggests they'll do competent work - not excellent yet, but a solid start.
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The lights function, the 90-seat house is cozy, the homey set by Leslie McMillan Perez frames the family, and Michael McCord's gentle direction lets Blessing breathe at an honest pace. Carol Reis as Evelyn, Linda Bernhard as Kess, Mariah von Hausch as Jo, and Kimberly Ehly - in a darkly amusing stage debut as Sherry - make many valid choices and connections.
But the cast, except for von Hausch, also falls into single-note deliveries, and builds more caricature than character. Reis causes suitable distress, but she also whines and mimics old age; Bernhard struts and enunciates in a deep voice - especially when describing early affairs with female YWCA camp counselors - and Ehly's punk bravado fumes with such cynicism, I wondered why she remained alive. Von Hausch though, saddled with a role drawn excessively sweet by the playwright, unearths an exciting number of layers to her repression. Never losing the thread of reality, the actress builds loneliness, frustration, love, and a mounting hysteria into Jo.
Those with miserable mamas may identify with Blessing's tale, find themselves moved by it, but they certainly won't enjoy it. While Evelyn's dysfunctional bunch hardly qualifies for full-blown abuse, the casual cruelty of loved ones never proves easy to stomach. In the maddening war between children and manipulative parents, the options don't include happy endings or victors - only deserters and permanent wounds.
Written by Lee Blessing, directed by Michael McCord; with Carole Reis, Linda Bernhard, Mariah von Hausch, and Kimberly Ehly. From The New Rover Repertory at The Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre, 640 N. Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, through April 5. Performances at 8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays; 7:00 p.m. Sundays. Requested donation: $8. Call 481-8234 for more information.