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Hitting the mother lode

Seven Southland stages explore the many aspects of 'mom.'

May 08, 2003|Anne Valdespino | Times Staff Writer

When the lights come up on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage in San Diego, it's clear that Lydia is terrified of her octogenarian mother, Rose, a small, tireless woman who continually snaps at her in guttural, German-accented English.

The daughter, a prim, thirtysomething psychiatrist, flits around a Manhattan apartment filled with out-of-date furniture, continually straightening up because she fears making eye contact with her mother.

Over at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood, theatergoers are greeted by the saccharine sounds of children's songs. When the music fades and the lights go up, a mother appears in overalls and comfy shoes with her hair in a ponytail. Her house looks like a messy day-care center: Kids' art hangs on the walls.

Lead actresses in "Knowing Cairo" and "Cheerios in My Underwear" are both mothers but they stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in productions playing throughout Southern California. As Mother's Day draws near, regional theaters are presenting visions of mom that are anything but stereotypical.

From San Diego to South Pasadena, these moms can be cruel, spiritual, comical, insecure, even murderous. But all are drawn in detail and all are exceedingly strong women, most of whom take the task of parenting very seriously.

Learning-curve moms

Some, like the mother in "Cheerios" are new moms, loving, insecure and a little crazy. Playwright-actress Amy Simon based her character on her own experience, describing her as a "loving but firm" mother. She's not perfect and makes her point by dressing like Donna Reed for a whirlwind tour through sitcom moms. But she can admit it. "It's Roseanne meets Erma Bombeck. I don't tell them to play in traffic, but sometimes I want to," Simon says.

Her uncertainty is mirrored in a mother character in "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow," at South Coast Repertory. Agoraphobic computer genius Jennifer decides to search on the Internet for her biological mother in China. Her digging leads her to create a robot.

The young girl who seemingly cares about nothing but herself and her love of computers instantly turns into a mother, says Melody Butiu, who plays Jennifer. "When she's sending her off to China, it's a huge step," says Butiu, who gives the robot a quick kiss before saying goodbye. "It's like her first day of kindergarten. There's a lot of excitement and expectations, it's a huge part of her life."

Feminists before women's lib

Contemporary moms aren't the only stage mothers working without a parenting guide. Period characters in two shows break the rules or live outside society while caring for children.

In "A Woman of Independent Means," at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, main character Bess loses her husband and is compelled to provide for her family. It's a tale of the transformation of a 19th century wife: The privileged, sheltered, stay-at-home mom forges ahead, taking over a failing business and turning it around.

"The only defense against death is life," she says. Bess' grace, strength and positive outlook have led some critics to remark that the phrase "independent means" refers more to her spirit than her bank account.

In "As It Is in Heaven," presented by the Actors Co-op in Hollywood, another group of 19th century women have moved outside society's traditional family roles but still act as mothers. The play stars a female cast: Shakers who practice celibacy and share parenting. Elders mentor younger members and motherly relationships blossom.

The elder Hannah, a strict, disapproving taskmaster, is a motherly figure for the younger Fanny, whose visions of angels threaten Hannah's authority. At first she keeps track of Fanny's deeds and misdeeds but in the end comes to appreciate her and Fanny reciprocates. "In some strange way Fanny really longs for Hannah's love," says director Marianne Savell.

Jane, a grief-stricken woman who has lost all her children, becomes very motherly to Izzy, a girl raised by Shakers after her mother died. When it comes time for Izzy to return to her father, she dissolves into tears in Jane's arms. The illiterate Jane accepts Lizzy's love, promising to write to her. "I know I can't now, but I'll learn," she says.

Immaterial moms

One of the most powerful mother figures in "Heaven" never steps on stage, but her presence is felt throughout the show.

Mother Ann Lee, a long-dead spiritual leader, begins to appear to some of the young women in the community. When her name is mentioned, there is almost always a reverential glow, sometimes manifested as a hush or a pause in the action on stage.

Lee, an illiterate English woman, led a community of Shakers to the New World in 1774 and died during persecution by a mob in 1784. Once considered the second coming of Christ by her followers, she remains an important figure, says Savell. "Because of the research we did, we knew how real she was to the Shakers," she says.

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