Three Broadway shows put motherhood in the spotlight

Classic American drama haunted by monstrous mothers. Vain, vampiric moms run wild in plays ranging from Tennessee Williams’ «The Glass Menagerie» to Eugene O’Neill’s «Long Day’s Journey into Night,» from Edward Albee’s «Three Tall Women» to Sam Shepard’s «The Buried Child.» For these guys, mothers are either harpies or sirens – villains or traps. Yet suddenly this season we’re surrounded by richly human mothers, each with a sympathetically observed interiority. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 2024 was a watershed year for women’s writing on Broadway.) In fact, Paula Vogel’s «Mother Play,» Shaina Taub’s musical «Suffs,» and Amy Herzog’s «Mary Jane» all contain a long moment in which we are asked to they simply sat and studied the woman’s face. In a world where we don’t fear mothers like Medusa, we might choose to look at them forever.

Hayes Theater Second Stage’s auto-fictional «Mother Play» stars Celia Keenan-Bolger as Martha, a lightly disguised version of Vogel, and Jim Parsons portrays a version of the playwright’s brother, Carl, who dies of complications from AIDS in 1988. Beginning with a flashback to the early 1960s, the play follows Martha and Carl over four decades as they deal with their stubborn, self-righteous single mother, Phyllis, played with wonderful, swaying grace by Jessica Lange. Vogel’s work is subtitled «A Game of Five Evictions,» a reference to both Phyllis’s efforts to keep her family housed in rental apartments—projection designer Shawn Duan places images of sinking cockroaches on refrigerators and trash cans—and her cruel eviction of sweet, bookish Carl after , who told her he slept with men.

If Vogel had ended her play there and Phyllis had yelled, «You’ve got five minutes to pack up and get out,» then «Mother Play» would have been another monstrous drama. Instead, Vogel follows Phyllis’s strange, magnetic effect on her children and theirs on her. A beautiful, if fleeting, rapprochement comes in 1978, when Martha talks her mother into a gay club with her and Carl, and then the family dances together. The petite feisty Keenan-Bolger plays Martha as a jackass who carries the strain of her upbringing on her shoulders; Parsons fills the space with huge looping gestures. Of the three actors, however, the only one who can really get on the dance floor is Lange. You’ll learn a lot about Phyllis’ frustrations and abilities when you watch her groove to «Disco Inferno.»

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Vogel herself applies parental power to contemporary American drama: her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 film How I Learned to Drive became the template for a postmodern memory play in which whimsical touches balance instances of cruelty. (The 2022 Broadway revival was a reminder of its prodigious power.) Here she returns to earlier formal innovations, though she seems far less confident in her pacing: fantasy elements, like an interlude in which cockroaches tap-dance, aren’t well integrated and climactic it relies heavily on the poignancy of Phyllis, in a wheelchair, unable to remember her son’s departure. (Dementia is a guaranteed way to make your audience cry.) I was far more moved by a long, wordless sequence in which a bored Phyllis tries to fill the time after her children leave. In the script, Vogel notes what Phyllis Ballet calls: there should be booze on the radio, microwaved food, Muzak. But director Tina Landau and Lange added an unscripted gesture. As Phyllis wanders, she briefly, tenderly tucks a flower under her chin. In the next scene, Phyllis places Martha’s hand in the same hollow. Phyllis can be devastating, but this little love note shows us just how much her daughter—so sure she’s unloved—really thought of her mother.

The constancy of women’s attention is also a prime mover in «Suffs,» a galvanizing musical written and composed by Shaina Taub about the struggle for women’s suffrage in the early decades of the twentieth century. Taub plays Alice Paul, a fledgling activist willing to stand up to veteran movement leaders like Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella). «Let the mother vote!» Catt sings in a tinkling Tin Pan Alley curtain, eager to get the men comfortable with the idea of ​​expanding the franchise. But it’s 1913, and Paul and the other young suffragists aren’t interested in such pandering: they march; singing anachronistic grab-‘em-by-the-misogynist-hull anthems («I’d rather be right than rich / ‘cause I’m a big American bitch»); and rally behind activist Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), who dresses as a warrior queen and rides a white palfrey at the head of their processions. Rather less cheerfully, they burn President Woodrow Wilson in effigy—there are no men in the cast, and the character is played by Grace McLean in drag—and endure imprisonment, hunger strikes, and force-feeding. The torture is kept behind the scenes, communicated mainly through a letter from Paul to her word, and as Taub sings, McLean’s dreamy voice provides a menacing counterpoint. «Ladies must be protected,» babbles the fool Wilson, rocking on his tummies like Fred Astaire.

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Catt may be using the popular notion of Mother as a comforting reassurance, but the musical, directed by Leigh Silverman, understands another key aspect of motherhood—the sometimes productive friction involved in passing knowledge from one generation to the next. We see this when Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) and the elder Mary Church Terrell (Anastacia McCleskey) disagree on how to hold the white women’s movement accountable for marginalizing black people, and when Catt advises Paul to be careful, and the younger crusader inevitably storms. In the final moments of the musical, Taub shows us the activists who will come after Paul – the work is endless. Earlier in the show, at intermission, we see a huge photo of the real Milholland, in full display; she died of anemia while campaigning for the Nineteenth Amendment. Milholland, like Paul, had no children, but they are still the founding mothers.

Motherhood in Amy Herzog’s wonderful «Mary Jane,» now at Samuel J. Friedman’s Manhattan Theater Club, has been distilled to an almost unbearable degree. We never actually see Mary Jane (Rachel McAdams, still a little stage-hesitating) hold her son Alex. The toddler is so ill that he requires round-the-clock care and is out of sight in his bedroom for the long first part of the play (directed by Anne Kauffman); we register his presence only by the beeping of his breathing apparatus. The superintendent of the building (the wonderful Brenda Wehle) wants to put bars on the windows, but Alex will never walk or reach for a window—he’s never in danger of falling. He’s «my little prince,» says the kind-hearted home health aide (April Matthis), which makes us think of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s child monarch in space, ruling a kingdom in a vacuum.

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After the first act, we do not hear anyone address Mary Jane by her name. By the time Alex leaves for the hospital, the women helping her address her only as mom. A doctor (Matthis again), a Buddhist chaplain (Wehle again) and others speak bravely, honestly, while supporting Mary Jane as she cares for her son and tries to maintain her optimism. Herzog spoke of a story that stems in part from overwhelming personal experience, which you hear in the play’s technical specificity and its tone of clear anguish. Spiritual aspects of the production – Mary’s name; Alex as the peace-loving prince whose body he bathes and cares for; the way set designer Lael Jellinek flew out of the apartment but then hovered angelically above the white hospital void—they are almost invisible behind the jumble of mundane text details. At the end, when Mary Jane tells the chaplain about the auras of an impending migraine, the play focuses all its light on her face and Mary Jane turns into something like a medieval icon of the Virgin Mary. The theatrical background is gone; even the size disappears in the narrow light of the spotlights. Mary Jane was precious only because of her suffering and love—and, of course, because of how she shines. ♦


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