Absent mothers and present sons

By Monica Prendergast, February 2015

This month the Belfry helps us explore the bonds and tensions between mothers and sons (with both laughs and tears).

Raising my two sons has been a fascinating experience for me as I had no brothers growing up. I had to learn as my husband and I went along how these small creatures were both the same as, and much different from, the girls and sisters with whom I was much more familiar. I have loved watching both of them morph from babyhood to manhood, and have tried to support them as best I can.

Yet it is true that no one can enrage you quite like your nearest and dearest. Likewise, no one can challenge you to overcome failures and to do better, try again, as does a mother with her children. These strong emotions often play out well in dramatic forms. 

This month the Belfry Theatre presents two one-act plays that both deal with aspects of mother and son relationships (January 27 to March 1). Let’s take a moment to track this theme, historically speaking, before focusing in on what the Belfry shows are offering audiences.

One of the first mother/son relationships on stage is Oedipus the King’s unfortunate incestuous relationship with his mother Jocasta, whom he marries after unknowingly killing his father. Things do not go well in that particular family. Nor do they in other Greek tragedies such as Medea, in which the title character kills her two young sons in revenge against her faithless husband. In Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, a mother coaxes her son to kill his father, also for revenge. Things go from bad to worse there, too.

Moving forward in Western theatrical history, the rage that Hamlet expresses towards his mother Gertrude for marrying his uncle makes for one of the best scenes in the canon. One of most long-suffering mothers I know is Mrs Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. Her cheating husband has given her syphilis, that she has in turn passed on to their son Oswald. The play ends with her in limbo deciding whether or not to euthanize her son who is going blind and insane from the disease. 

Equally unhappy mothers and sons can be seen in Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Both of these stage portrayals are semi-autobiographical, with O’Neill’s mother wasting away from drug addiction and Williams’ iconic mother figure of Amanda Wingfield. Amanda is the combination of fragile faded southern belle and steely-minded domineering single mother, whom son Tom loves and hates in equal measure. The entire play involves Tom remembering how he finally escaped her clutches, only to live with the guilt of leaving his mother and his frail sister Laura behind. Heartbreaking.

The relationship between mothers and sons can be heartbreaking. Both of the one-act plays at the Belfry explore aspects of these bonds in quite distinct ways.

Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Boys is not his first play dealing with parents and children. I mounted a production of his play Marion Bridge with my small theatre company in 2007. I’ve always been a sucker for plays about sisters and this one features three sisters dealing with the death of their mother; the latter who never appears onstage. In his most recent play, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2012, two brothers are coping with the accidental death of their mother. The Best boys, Hamilton and Kyle, are opposites in many ways and their own tensions have an effect on how they both remember their mother and how they grieve her loss. 

Unlike the tragedies I mentioned earlier, we can look forward to some laughs here. Momma has been killed in a collision at a Gay Pride parade and both of her boys wonder if she didn’t love her dog more than she did them; and, although the mother Bunny is gone, the magic of theatre allows both actors to invoke her presence so we can hear her side of the story. MacIvor is one of Canada’s leading playwrights and, under Glynis Leyshon’s direction, I anticipate a good time with what critic Robert Cushman calls MacIvor’s best (if most conventional) play.

The second half of this evening of one-acts is lighting designer Itai Erdal’s one-man play How to Disappear Completely. It is difficult for me not to write a review of this show as I saw it two years ago when he performed at Intrepid Theatre’s UNO Festival. Erdal has created an autobiographical documentary lecture-performance that is risky, innovative and ultimately very powerful. He is no actor, although his characterization of family members is very accurate. Yet the authenticity of his story and the creative ways he tells it are compelling. 

The topic of the play is his mother’s decline and death from lung cancer. Erdal documented much of this time on video and clips are shown throughout the play. He both simultaneously translates (his family is Israeli so speaks Hebrew) and comments on what was happening for him, his sister, and other family members at the time. Witnessing his mother as she weakens is difficult, yet Erdal resists sentimentality, remaining quite factual about events. No doubt the distance of more than a decade since her death allows him the emotional strength to present this show, as he has done across the country over the past four years. 

Woven with this difficult story of loss is a lecture on stage lighting, complete with various demonstrations of how light creates effects on an audience. While this description may sound somewhat disjointed, on stage the performance feels seamless, metaphorical, even poetic. Erdal has created a vivid and theatrical account of how he supported his mother in her final days, and how she is remembered by those she loved. Take a tissue or two, you’ll need them.

The mothers in these two intriguing plays are both absent and present. Bunny in The Best Boys has her say in the play, but is channelled through her sons who take on her character with the donning of a pair of gloves. In this way, we “see” the mother through her sons in a way that I believe only theatre can do so well. In How to Disappear Completely, the mother is a ghostly presence on a screen  and there is no protection of fiction; we know we are seeing Erdal’s real-life mother. In this play, an audience is charged with the knowledge that the death of parents is inevitable, but how we deal with that inevitability can define us, marking each of us as stronger or weaker as a result. 

Monica is delighted to have her mother close by and is planning a celebration of her 80th birthday along with her three sisters this spring. Her mother-in-law Marianne Livant was featured on the cover of Focus in 1998 while she was dying from the lung cancer that took her that year. She is remembered by all who knew her with admiration and love.