Mad Mama Drama

Germinal's Independence offers a credible look at a smother.

Independence is a story about three very different young women and their terrifyingly possessive, half-mad mother. Kess, the oldest daughter, left the family and remained out of touch with her mother for four years. She's a successful academic, living in Minneapolis with her lesbian lover. At the beginning of the play, Kess returns to the family fold because of a frantic phone call from her younger sister Jo, who says their mother, Evelyn, tried to kill her. During her last visit, Kess had Evelyn committed for three months. Sherry, the youngest of the three sisters, is nineteen and about to graduate from high school, but she behaves like an angry, promiscuous thirteen-year-old. She also has dreams of being an artist.

Jo is pregnant. She yearns for a real relationship with the father of her child but has turned down his offer of marriage in order to stay with the unstable Evelyn.

Independence is very absorbing to watch; it's smart, and the rhythm of the dialogue is compelling. On one level, it provides the same kind of pleasure you get from watching Jerry Springer or reality TV, the feeling of superiority engendered by seeing other people behaving very, very badly. Evelyn is grasping, narcissistic and destructive. She believes she owns her daughters. Controlling mothers in film and literature are usually more subtle and ingenious. They pretend solicitude. They mask their intentions. But Evelyn's possessiveness is a blunt instrument. She rages and wheedles and issues orders. She stages pathetically obvious tantrums. She's quite capable of homicidal attack. Playing Scrabble, she comes up with two words: "up" and "me."

Jennifer Anne Forsyth and Courtney Hayes in 
Independence.
Jennifer Anne Forsyth and Courtney Hayes in Independence.

What makes the play credible is our knowledge that people like this -- people whose greedy self-absorption is so intertwined with their madness that no one can tell which is which -- do exist. The characters also possess enough psychological complexity to keep you riveted. You feel concern for the sisters; you want all of them to escape. And periodically, you even feel compassion for the pinched and pitiable Evelyn.

When Kess, played by Rebecca Sage, first appears, she's smooth and poised and seems completely in control of her life, even a little smug. As the action unfolds, she gets lured further and further into her mother's trap, putting off her departure for days and ultimately weeks. (It seems to me a lapse in the script that this never jeopardizes her work, and there seem to be no complaints from her apparently infinitely patient partner, Susan.) In a further twist, there are hints that the longer Kess stays, the more she becomes like her mother. She offers Jo an escape, then withdraws the offer. During a tea party she's arranged as an exercise in politeness among the women, she presses Evelyn to relay a conversation with a neighbor about Jo. It's fairly obvious that Evelyn's holding back something upsetting, but Kess pushes until the damaging information is out. I'm not entirely sure whether playwright Lee Blessing meant Kess to be obtuse, cruel or both here.

Sherry gets an invitation to show her work at a Brooklyn gallery. She's ecstatic until Kess suggests the letter is a hoax engineered by Spinner, one of Sherry's many one-night stands. Does Sherry really think there's a Raul Gallery, Kess says, gently mocking, or such a thing as "post-postmodern infantilism"? Again, I wasn't sure how to interpret this. It seems to me the art world is quite capable of spinning a label like "post-postmodern infantilism." And I couldn't imagine that biker Spinner was sophisticated enough to invent the term as parody. At the very least, it seemed that Kess should have checked out the gallery name before destroying her sister's hopes.

Ed Baierlein directs with unobtrusive skill, and he has assembled a cast that makes each character vital and specific. Terry Ann Watts, by turns vindictive, wheedling, sullen and childishly triumphant, makes the monstrous Evelyn credible. Courtney Hayes has tremendous, wiggling energy as Sherry, and she also reveals the teen's twitchy vulnerability. Rebecca Sage's Kess is charming, but you can't quite read her. Even if the playwright's intentions are unclear, Sage could have clarified Kess's motivations. As played by Jennifer Anne Forsyth, Jo stifles her feelings but shows an appealing, almost childish bravery. Both she and Sage tend to get a little shrill, however, during emotional moments.

From the discussion I heard during intermission and after the play, the family dynamics hit home for many in the audience. Ultimately, I don't think this is a particularly deep play, but it certainly is a lively and interesting one.

 
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