Friday, September 4, 2009

If Momma Was Harried

Last week, while watching a new series on Animal Planet entitled Into the Pride, I was impressed by the aggressive behavior of Cleo, the dominant matriarch of a pride of lions who was not about to let a human make contact with her cubs. While many mothers are fiercely protective of their offspring, not all of them settle for growling and charging at strangers.
  • Some strive for martyrdom.
  • Some use the silent treatment.
  • Some erupt in temper tantrums.
  • Some try to micromanage their children's lives.
  • Some stay in the kitchen, repressing their anger.
  • Some make misguided decisions out of sheer desperation.
Are these mothers horribly dysfunctional women or primitive minds doing the best they can with the rudimentary tools at their disposal? Are they brutally honest or has one little white lie blossomed into such a web of familial deceit that they can no longer see straight? The cliches of maternal monsterdom include -- but are hardly limited to -- statements like the following:
  • "I only did it for you."
  • "As God is my witness....."
  • "Everything you got, you owe to me."
  • "Haven't I suffered enough already?"
  • "Because I'm your mother and I said so."
  • "How could you be so cruel to your mother?"
  • "When you pay the rent, you can make the decisions."
  • "I only hope I live long enough to see your children do to you what you've done to me."
Outrageous behavior can be found in many a family. Whether one watches outbursts of dysfunctional behavior in a reality show (The Real Housewives of Orange County, Trading Spouses) -- or in one's own extended family -- the histrionics are rarely pretty. That's why so many family dramas have inspired major works of stage and screen:
  • Stella Dallas (book, stage, several films, and an 18-year radio series) focuses on a woman who dedicates her life to giving her daughter all the opportunities she never had.
  • I Remember Mama (1944) by John Van Druten, recalls the sacrifices Marta Hanson frequently made for her children.
  • The Glass Menagerie (1944) by Tennessee Williams features an overly protective mother (Amanda Wingfield) who would go to any extremes for her daughter to get married.
  • All My Sons (1947) by Arthur Miller features a wife in an extreme state of denial, who knows that her husband's bad business dealings led to the deaths of 21 soldiers. Kate Keller also refuses to believe that her son, who has been missing in action for three years, is dead.
  • Long Day's Journey Into Night (1956) by Eugene O'Neill focuses on a morphine-addicted mother who has made too many promises to her sons that she knows she cannot keep.
  • Gypsy: A Musical Fable (1959) by Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Jule Styne features the ultimate monster of a stage mother (Rose Hovick).
  • The Gingerbread Lady (1970) by Neil Simon features a cabaret singer (Evy Meara) whose alcoholism has destroyed her career, her family, and taken a terrible toll on her health.
  • Torch Song Trilogy (1982) by Harvey Fierstein features an angry Jewish widow (Mrs. Beckhoff) who refuses to accept her gay son's relationship with his dead lover as having had any legitimacy.
  • August: Osage County (2008) by Tracy Letts features a pill-popping matriarch (Violet Weston) who has lived through generations of family lies and occasionally resorts to nasty outbursts of "truth telling."
The curse of being an unhappy, under-appreciated mother is often due to unreasonable expectations on the part of the parent and/or seething rebellion on the part of her child. Nowhere has this been as brilliantly encapsulated onstage as in the psychological meltdown that provides the shattering finale to Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Because one can never watch it enough times (this number has the morbid fascination one feels while watching a train wreck in slow motion), here is Tyne Daly's furious interpretation of "Rose's Turn."

In two of the families portrayed in recent dramas, the mothers had radically different boiling points (no doubt due to the cultures in which they were raised). One mother was an unbearable shrew, wildly lashing out at anything and anyone who crossed her path. The other was the quiet type, who knew how to inflict guilt in more subtle ways but with the searing precision of a paper cut.

* * * * * * * *

Originally produced by The Group Theater in 1935, Awake and Sing! looks in on a Jewish family whose life in a cramped Bronx apartment is in a constant state of turmoil. The original production of Clifford Odets' family drama was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and Sanford Meisner (all of whom have since come to be regarded as giants of the American theater). It's interesting to compare these two show posters from productions nearly 70 years apart:

Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company is now offering an extremely intimate production of Awake and Sing! performed in its three-quarter-round auditorium. The proximity to the actors makes the drama all the more intense, especially when one considers the seething levels of discontent within the Berger household.
  • Grandpa Jacob (Ray Reinhardt), the patriarch of the Berger family, once dreamt of revolution but is now at the tail end of a life filled with regrets. He loves to listen to old opera recordings -- in particular Enrico Caruso's rendition of "O Paradis" from Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera, L'Africaine. Increasingly aware of his impending mortality, Jacob has secretly changed the name of the beneficiary on his insurance policy to that of his young grandson, Ralph.
  • Jacob's son Morty (Victor Talmadge), who is in the garment business, knows how to visit the Bergers, bathe in the glow of his sister's devoted attention, and enjoy her food. Curiously, he does little to help his struggling relatives cope with their meager finances.
  • Jacob's grandson Ralph (Patrick Russell) is an optimist who has grown sick and tired of his mother's brazen prejudices and blazing insecurities. Having fallen in love with an orphan named Blanche, he is acutely aware that he lacks the kind of money which would allow them to wed.
  • Jacob's granddaughter Hennie (Rebecca White) is a desperately unhappy young woman who gets knocked up by a family friend, Moe Axelrod (Rod Gnapp). Rather than be a source of embarrassment to the gossiping neighbors, Hennie gets pushed into a loveless marriage with a recent immigrant who is naive enough to think that their child might be his own.
  • Jacob's son-in-law, Myron (Charles Dean), is a henpecked husband who lets his wife tyrannize their family.
And then there is Jacob's manipulative monster of a daughter, Bessie. A rabid control freak with horrifically unjustifiable delusions of grandeur, she has become an abusive termagant with a vitriolic streak. Bessie rules over the extended Berger family like a malevolent hurricane that methodically and melodramatically destroys everything in its path. She is the classic meddling Jewish mother turned family bully/bitch, whose never-ending threats, tears, insults, heartburn, and constant worrying are effective ploys guaranteed to make her the perpetual center of attention. She, of course, would vehemently deny this.

For all of Bessie's ranting and raving, she is no match for the cynical, realistic Moe, who is impervious to her outbursts. Moe would like nothing more than to marry Bessie's daughter but, because one of his legs was shot off in World War II, he has been deemed ineligible for consideration as a potential suitor by the sneering Bessie (who knows what she likes, what she doesn't like, and especially knows what she does not want to hear).

Ellen Ratner and Charles Dean (Photo by: David Allen)

As directed by Joy Carlin on the superb unit set designed by Nina Ball, Aurora Theatre's ensemble struggles to keep the Berger family afloat as Bessie screams the blues (Oy, how she suffers, and whose fault is that, anyway?) Like a vicious alcoholic, Bessie stomps on everyone else's dreams, determined that her vision of life remain the only possible interpretation available to the Bergers. When Moe and Hennie finally decide to run away and escape Bessie's stranglehold on their lives, Ralph dutifully remains behind, determined to work toward a better future.

Patrick Russell (Photo by: David Allen)

Awash in thick Bronx accents, Awake and Sing! is a throwback to an era when first generation Jewish immigrants were intoxicated with the thought of political power, desperate to break through the shtetl mentality in order to assimilate into American society, and yet crippled by their own fears and prejudices. While the cast works tightly as an ensemble, Rod Gnapp shines with a burning sarcasm as Moe Axelrod. The production runs through September 27 at the Aurora Theatre in downtown Berkeley.

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Family tensions are more subtly referenced in Hirokazu Kore-Eda's quiet new film, Still Walking, which focuses on a family reunion taking place on the 15h anniversary of the accidental death of Junpei, the family's number one son. A brilliant young man who was supposed to take over his father's medical clinic, Junpei drowned while trying to save another boy. Although much of the action in Still Walking seems (and is) surprisingly mundane, it's easy to sense the source of each character's internal conflict.

Yui Natsukawa and Hiroshi Abe

In his director's notes, Kore-eda explains:
"Still Walking is a film launched by the experience of regret that we all share. In the past five or six years, I lost both my parents. As an ungrateful eldest son who used the demands of his profession to excuse my long absences from home, I find myself troubled by regrets to this day. "If only I'd been more...." "Why did I say that then...," etc. Because Still Walking started from a place of regret, I was determined to make it a film brimming with life. Rather than portray how my parents made their way towards death, my intent was to capture a moment of life itself and fold into that moment all the ambiguities of family memory (just like the photos in an old family album).

There are no typhoons in this film. Unlike in an American TV drama, nothing of consequence happens over the course of their rare, overnight family reunion. Only the "before" and the "after" of dramatic events are revealed. In other words, I have focused on the premonitions and the reverberations of life because I believe that is precisely where the essence of life can be found. The characters are utterly ordinary people and the film takes place over the course of a single summer day. Yet, over the course of their day (as deceptively tranquil as a calm sea) the tide flows in, then out, and wavelets constantly ripple the surface.

In this film, more than in my others, I believe I have managed to portray human beings and our behavior in a specific and nuanced way. This film is a work of fiction, but I relied heavily on my mother's actual personality and vocabulary in shaping the character of the protagonist's mother. I wanted to make a movie where I could immediately recognize my mother: not to cry over her loss, but to laugh with her again."
Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe

If you've ever visited a home prior to a big dinner and stood on the sidelines as women fussed in the kitchen and men tried to find something to say to each other, you'll have no trouble grasping the Yokoyama family's dynamic. The house looks a little shabbier, the neighbors are dying, and one's parents may seem a bit more frail when seen through the eyes of:
  • Ryota Yokoyama (Hiroshi Abe), now 40 years old, has recently married a widow who has a 10-year-old son from her previous marriage. Guilt feelings about not spending more time with his parents -- as well as his father's scorn for Ryota's chosen profession as an art restorer -- cause Ryota to make promises to visit them that he knows he will not keep. He also knows that he can never measure up to the ghost of Junpei, who was the family's golden child.
  • Ryota's wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) is caught between a needy child from a previous marriage, a husband who dreads visiting his family, and her own need to be accepted as Ryota's wife.
  • Ryota's stepson, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) is having difficulty understanding how or why Ryota will ever find a place in his heart.
  • Ryota's sister, Chinami (You) often visits her parents and is a very "perky" type of woman. While her children are outside playing (and attempting to break open a watermelon), she spends time in the kitchen gossiping with her mother, who is busily mashing radishes and preparing corn tempura.
  • Ryota's brother-in-law, Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi), is a car salesman who would very much like to inherit the Yokoyama home when Ryota's parents pass on.
  • Ryota's father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) regrets that he has no one to carry on his medical practice. Like many retired physicians, he likes to be seen as an authoritarian figure and often retreats to his office rather than participate in family moments.
  • Ryota's long-suffering mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), desperately misses her favorite son, Junpei. Like many mothers, she thinks Ryota's choice of a widowed single mother as a bride means that he has settled for used goods, which is why she urges him to have a child of his own ("Once there are children, it's harder to divorce"). Toshiko finds a perverse measure of satisfaction in always inviting the man whose life Junpei saved to the family reunions just so she can watch him suffer the humiliation of still being alive while her son is dead. Along with other members of the family, she is quick to criticize him for his weight, his slovenly appearance, and his lack of ambition.
Yoshio Harasda, Shohei Tanaka, and Kirin Kiki

If parts of Still Walking seem a bit boring, that's because long stretches of family life are also boring. Many moments in the heat of the summer day are quiet, lonely, and spent in solitary thought rather than brilliant conversation. Here's the trailer:

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