The mother-as-monster story has been told many times. Lee Blessing's
1984 play, Independence, has the archetypes you would imagine
peopling such a story: the prodigal child who left but remains
the mother's favorite, the child whose self-sacrifice at the altar
of her mother's neediness goes unappreciated, the wild child who
may be the most clear-eyed of them all. Still, though it hardly
explores new territory, the play presents its themes and conflicts
with realism and poignancy.
The story begins with a homecoming: Kess, the eldest of three daughters and the only one to have left home, returns for a visit at the behest of Jo, the middle one, on whom their mother's oppressive dependence seems to have taken the worst toll and who is near the breaking point. She is Mom's caretaker and punching-bag combined, and is trapped by her own caring nature and thwarted self-esteem in ways that become tragically apparent as the story unfolds. Also living at home is outspoken, rebellious teenager Sherry, with whom Kess is almost immediately at loggerheads, creating yet more tension to be defused by poor Jo. Torn between duty and the feeling that she will go insane if she does not break away from her mother, Jo turns to Kess for rescue but finds that the "strong" sister may not be as much of a bulwark as she hoped. The question becomes, can she be her own bulwark in a sea of dysfunction and disappointment? The play succeeds in investing the question with importance and answering it with stirring authenticity.
David Belisle directed this revival with sensitivity, bringing out mostly excellent performances from his cast. Carol Mennie was terrific as the pathologically self-absorbed mother who wreaks such havoc on her daughters' emotional lives. By turns overbearingly affectionate, chillingly manipulative, and petulant, she was as compelling to watch as a car wreck. Equally wonderful was Sonda Staley as Jo, whose translucent, angelic face expressed her character's sweet earnestness and raw sensitivity as clearly as her voice. Karma Tiffany, as embittered but indomitable Sherry, also gave a vivid and believable performance. She was able to show childlike enthusiasm beneath a protective coating of bravura in such a way that perfectly captured the duality of late adolescence. Less satisfying was Andrea Miskow's portrayal of Kess, who perhaps took her character's emotional remoteness a step too far towards blandness.
Jon Felty created a set that was perfectly serviceable, as were Annie-Laurie Wheat's costumes, Morgan Shevett's lighting, and the musical contributions of band Bionic Finger and soloist Maren Montalbano.
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Copyright 2000 Jillian Perlberger