'Mothers' are separated and joined in pregnancy

September 12, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Part Greek tragedy, part soap opera, a little of Hollywood and a lot of Freud, Issak Esmail Issak's "Mothers" is an hourlong jaunt through a garden of psychological delights and torments.

Although riddled with incest, infidelity, murderous jealousy and venomous mother-daughter rivalry, this world premiere by Splitting Image Theatre Company at the Theatre Project is ultimately life-affirming and even comical.

What do mothers and daughters have in common? In Issak's distinctive vision, it's pregnancy. Twenty-year-old Bela and her 43-year-old mother, Mira, are both 12 weeks pregnant.

And that's not all they share. They're pregnant by the same man. "Fathers aren't important," Nancy Robinette's gloriously affected Mira says. "We are important, not the men," she gloats later.

But the identity of the father is extremely important to Pebble M. Kranz's alternately elated and brooding Bela. That's because her baby's father and her own father are one and the same. Or so she thinks.

Almost nothing is what it appears to be in this odd play, translated from the original Norwegian by the playwright, a native of Zanzibar. If Bela's father is not her father, then her child will not be the product of incest -- an idea that seems equally upsetting to her.

Then there's the matter of her father's recently deceased mistress. Getting Mira to explain how this woman died is, in Bela's words, "a challenge" -- especially since Mira is much more interested in bragging about the Lamborghini she inherited from the mistress.

As Bela predicts at the beginning, a story unravels in this short evening. It's the type of convoluted tale the TV soaps would take months to tell, and it's told here in highly stylized fashion, accentuated by melodramatic movie-music sound effects, Lynn A. Joslin's lighting design and the exaggerated performances of the actresses, under Elijah Dawson's direction.

Robinette, especially, takes to this style with panache. It's easy to see how her overbearing character could have driven her daughter to leave home.

The differences between mother and daughter are reflected in Jill Andrews' costume designs. Mira wears a sharp, black and white suit; Bela spends the evening nearly swallowed up in a shapeless gray bathrobe. Mira is in control, shrewd; Bela is out of control, confused.

But in the end, these women realize they have something to give each other. Looking into a mirror together, they see two adults who can be friends instead of rivals. As the lights dim, a bond is developing.

"Mothers" has had staged readings in Norway and at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. It's still awkward at times, particularly at the beginning, and the evening would be more fulfilling if it included another one-act play (Issak is working on a companion piece). But in its own decidedly skewed way, "Mothers" raises important issues.

These issues, which encompass virtually the entire psychological catalog of mother-daughter relations, were also explored in Splitting Image's debut work, from which the company took its name a decade ago. Stylistically, the two pieces couldn't be more dissimilar -- the first was movement-based; the current one is language-based. Nor will "Mothers" take your breath away like that first piece (or like much of Splitting Image's subsequent work). "Mothers" is more like the grain of sand that irritates an oyster into creating a pearl -- not a perfect cultured pearl, but a twisted baroque gem, more strange than beautiful.

'Mothers'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 28

Tickets: $14

Call: 410-752-8558

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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