The Mother Load

Although this year's Colorado Women Playwrights' Festival explores unsettling and disturbing subjects, the first of two festival programs marks a significant improvement over last season's feeble offerings. Despite a few logistical headaches (like starting a performance twenty minutes late, needlessly allowing a fifteen-minute intermission to run to half an hour and some bothersome technical snafus), Denver's Industrial Arts Theatre, which sponsors the event, can take pride in having presented a pair of engaging one-act plays that demonstrate strong potential. And while both shows are riddled with structural problems and some saucy dialogue that's more juvenile than witty, the thought-provoking program casts informative light on issues that are frequently cloaked in shame and fear.

At the beginning of Lynn Aliya's The Women of Fredonia: The Legacy of a Nuclear Family, we learn that the main character, Josephina, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. As if that weren't enough, Phinnie, as she's called, also has to deal with fallout of a different sort. While growing up in Fredonia, a desert town that straddles the Arizona-Utah border, Phinnie and her family were exposed to damaging radiation from nearby atomic-bomb blasts. Through a series of flashback scenes, we accompany actress Robin Freeman, who embodies all of the female roles in this one-woman show, as she retraces Phinnie's Mormon roots, deals with Phinnie's unseen doctors (their voices come across the sound system) and tries to come to grips with Phinnie's memories of her mother's uphill battle with the same disease.

A competent and articulate actress, Freeman is most effective when she quietly expresses Phinnie's feelings or matter-of-factly informs the audience about her situation. When Phinnie first discovers a lump on her breast by doing a self-exam in the shower, for instance, Freeman nicely conveys her character's profound shock and disbelief by falling to her knees and describing how, emotionally numbed by her discovery, she remained kneeling in the bathtub until the hot water ran out. Then Freeman stands up, takes a couple of steps toward the audience and candidly explains that the term "metastatic cancer" refers to a stage of the illness in which the cancerous cells eventually affect one's internal organs by spreading through the bloodstream. As Freeman calmly lies down on a gurney center stage, stares at the ceiling and wonders where her so-called faith has gotten her, the ramifications of Phinnie's routine self-exam seem overwhelming.

Perhaps as a way of momentarily sidestepping that issue as well as defusing some mounting tension, playwright Aliya then introduces us to Phinnie's Mormon ancestors. Moving to another section of the pinkish, mostly bare set, Freeman tells us about Phinnie's great-grandmother, a pioneer woman who was part of the original Mormon trek westward and who, in turn, inspired her daughter to become one of the founders of the city of Fredonia: "An ideal place," Freeman says softly, "a world of free women." Just as Phinnie's story about her forebears starts to get interesting, though, the dramatist cuts things short and fast-forwards to 1951. Then Freeman quickly relates an anecdote from Phinnie's years as an eighth-grader and, twenty or so seconds later, another from her stint as a graduate student. Though intriguing and ripe with opportunities for character development, the awkward series of events proves as confusing as it is jarring.

In addition, Aliya sometimes undermines the solo performer's credibility by saddling Freeman with portentous lines that land with a thud no matter how innocently they're delivered. For example, shortly before Phinnie's first visit to the doctor, she makes a few offhand remarks about Christopher Reeve and about some pamphlets she notices that detail diseases such as chlamydia and AIDS. And while that might be Aliya's underhanded way of noting that society is ultra-aware of certain celebrified health issues but not others, the playwright never adequately develops the idea. Then, out of nowhere, Phinnie describes a dream in which she encountered a fish that looked like her mother. Gradually, says Freeman, Phinnie's hands turned into fins, and she and the mother-fish swam back to where they were spawned. The story ends as abruptly as it began, and Freeman moves on to another non sequitur about being taught as a young child that touching herself was naughty. When Phinnie declares near play's end that she's not about to resemble a beagle with her mouth taped shut, waiting to die (a reference to dogs who were present during Fifties nuclear testing), you can only wonder why Aliya couldn't have come up with a more poetical, less literal way to convey Phinnie's newfound determination to overcome her illness.

Developmental problems with the script notwithstanding, the 45-minute drama is, at times, affecting and moving. Although director Kate Karnopp struggles with matters of technical detail (the doctor flubs several of his voice-over lines, and Freeman has difficulty confining her movements to a few narrowly spotlit areas), her overall approach enhances the playwright's heartfelt message. Indeed, the play's final scene, in which Freeman communicates Phinnie's terror at having to face her own mortality while grocery shopping, is well-staged and strongly acted. By carefully weaving together disparate elements instead of merely juxtaposing them, it's likely that Aliya's touch-and-go story will become the sweeping, powerful tale that she evidently intends.

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