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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.

On the other hand, playwright Kristin Wheeler, whose 45-minute one-act Worry Dolls constitutes the second half of the evening, faces a different sort of challenge: how to depict the divide that exists between a traditional mother and her liberated daughter without resorting to shop-worn dialogue and predictable conflicts. But that's a difficult task when you consider that the mother (Rosie Goodman) in Wheeler's play is dealing with the news that she's got breast cancer at the same time that her daughter, Katty (Kerstin Caldwell), has drawn new lines of parent-child demarcation in an effort to distance herself from her clingy mother.

As the play begins, we learn from Katty that one of the "benefits" of having a cellular phone is that a mother can tell her daughter that she has breast cancer while said daughter is shopping at Target. Before the play degenerates into a stereotypical mother-daughter phone battle, however, the dramatist offers us some fresh insight as Katty observes, "I'm so attached to my own beauty that I can't look past it in order to be with her." A few minutes later, Katty raises another interesting topic when she muses, "As I moved into young womanhood, did [my mother] release her place to me willingly?" And as both characters progress through the stages of Mom's surgery and recovery, they wrestle with how the disease has changed their relationship and their own self-images. "I wonder if anyone will ever want me again?" Goodman's matron wonders poignantly, while, seated next to her, Caldwell tells us about Katty's tendency to take for granted such transitory conditions as health and happiness.

Too often, though, Wheeler interrupts her moving examination with diversionary comments about mythological figures and spiritual beliefs as well as explicit language. For example, there's a character called Daughter's Inner Buddhist (Anita Harkes), who observes the action from afar, interacts with Katty in a series of bizarre episodes and sometimes sports a lab coat while briefly standing in as a doctor or hospital aide. But instead of acting as a voice of reason or an insightful third eye, the character simply serves as a superfluous prop or inconsequential sounding board for a few conversations that Katty apparently doesn't feel comfortable having with herself, her mother or the audience. And whether Katty is telling her mother, "There's a long-ass hair on your other boob" or noting "Let's keep the twat intact" (a reference to the abandoned practice of using skin from the vagina to reconstruct part of the breast after surgery), Wheeler's use of graphic images is even less effective.

Maybe Wheeler wants us to feel free to talk about women's health issues without also feeling like we have to choose our words carefully. Maybe she wants to shock us into confronting the matter at hand. But while one marvels at the candor the women employ when discussing their problems--a frankness that, in all likelihood, would seem out of place if a few male characters were compelled to talk to each other about prostate cancer or even high cholesterol--Wheeler's dialogue sometimes brings to mind a giggling, potty-mouthed child who can't get over her ability to stun an adult crowd into silence by blurting out the word "nipple" over and over. It's humorous and provocative the first couple of times. After that, it simply comes off as gratuitous--which is a shame.

Still, Wheeler successfully makes the point that, no matter how grown-up their children might expect them to be, parents are vulnerable human beings with fears, concerns and weaknesses that often intensify with age. She also expands our understanding of what it means to confront loneliness and alienation at age fifty in an era when more people are living well past retirement while their thirty-something children pursue activities that have more to do with self-indulgence than self-improvement. And director Melanie Owen and a fine cast lend considerable poignancy to Wheeler's occasional orchestration of the private, shared feelings that pass between Mom and Katty. All of which winds up saying more about the human condition than any amount of screaming about Aphrodite, Electra or female bodily functions ever will.

The Women of Fredonia: The Legacy of a Nuclear Family and Worry Dolls, Program One of the 1999 Colorado Women Playwrights' Festival, presented by the Industrial Arts Theatre through June 20 at the Denver Civic Theater, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-595-3821.