Jessica Lange Is A Thrilling Watch

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There is no handbook on motherhood, but most people try their best when it comes to childrearing. Today, amid increasingly accessible resources and freedoms that weren’t afforded in the past, parenting has undoubtedly changed. However, “Mother Play,” written by Paula Vogel, is not a story about modern-day mothers. Instead, it’s a tale centering on a bitter, disillusioned woman, Phyllis (Jessica Lange), who feels duped by the circumstances of her life. Directed by Tina Landu, “Mother Play” showcases how Phyllis’ resentments trickle into her relationships with her two children, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger).

Told over the course of 40 years, the audience is introduced to the Herman family in their roach-infested basement apartment in 1964. Fourteen-year-old Carl is easily lost in his books and is deeply curious about the world around him. Armed with a vibrant personality, he is the family’s North Star, a best friend to the more guarded 12-year-old Martha and Phyllis’ favorite child. The kids exist in their own bubble as Phyllis orbits around them. In disbelief following her abusive husband’s abandonment of them, she seems content only when smoking cigarettes and guzzling gin. Groomed to be a homemaker, Phyllis is bewildered to be working outside the home, barely making ends meet, and she won’t stay quiet about it. 

As the production progresses toward the late sixties through the 1980s and into the present, the trio is evicted five times, moving together and apart in varied apartments and condos. David Zinn’s brilliant set design, lighting by Jen Schriever and the constant rearranging of furniture pieces and light fixtures allow for a fresh blueprint and depiction of new spaces on the stage. Additionally, the projection design by Shawn Duan offers a horrifying but deeply amusing illusion of the Hermans’ first two places, which are overrun by all manner of critters and vermin. 

“Mother Play” is a mostly devastating narrative about a woman who can neither connect to her children nor adjust to the rapidly changing society around her. However, the narrative doesn’t sit in sadness. Instead, the dialogue boasts a web of humor and wit. Despite her faults and inability to see beyond herself, Phyllis’ love of fashion, remembrances of past romances and pension for revenge (which often leads to evictions) depict her humanity, especially since she’s monstrous during many moments in the play. 

The performances also reign tall in “Mother Play,” even when the storylines seem on the verge of teetering too far toward melodrama. Lange is magnificent in her depiction of a woman who, across the decades, can’t quite reconcile what her life or her children have become. Meanwhile, Parsons is delightful as Carl, a man wholly at ease with his sexuality and passions. Keenan-Bolger’s Martha rounds out the family. Her stoic steadiness throughout grates at Phyllis’ overbearing disposition and sets up the perfect tension for the mother and daughter’s fraught relationship. 

While most of the production works flawlessly, there are two major missteps. Because viewers are well aware of the time periods (Martha calls out the years throughout the show’s 105-minute run time), some of the major plot points are highly predictable, taking away the story’s emotional power. Moreover, one particular scene of Phyllis at home alone simply doesn’t work. The segment is supposed to depict her loneliness and isolation, but the wordless 10 minutes is overlong and dull, belaboring a point that could have been made in less than half the time. 

Still, despite its imperfections, “Mother Play” is a genuinely engaging examination of a family trying to find equilibrium. It honors the glimmers and low points of mothering and explains why, in some cases, the role is transposed onto those who were never called to it in the first place. 

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