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STAGE REVIEW : ‘SOUVENIR’ IS MOTHER’S HEIRLOOM

One of the least acknowledged relationships in the literature of the stage, and in literature in general, is that of mother and daughter, which is surprising: Daughters are close to their mothers in a way that sons are not close to their fathers. Women share a sexual complicity, or a consciousness about flesh and the spirit, family and society, that most men tend to arrive at second-hand.

The Mark Taper Forum’s Sunday literary cabaret at the Itchey Foot Ristorante is designed as a complement to whatever is being mounted Mainstage. Marsha Norman’s “ ‘night, Mother” is playing at the Taper; “Souvenir,” a Jessica Teich adaptation of the prose of Jayne Anne Phillips, is at the Itchey Foot.

The compelling quality of “ ‘night, Mother” is in the airtight logic with which a woman decides to kill herself--the play is so skillfully written that you have no choice but to go along for the ride, even if the car is irritatingly cramped. That she shoots herself in her mother’s house is altogether something else, a vengeful decision whose unrevealed and unexplored motive gives this fine work an underlying lie, like a piece of architecture built on a fault line.

“Souvenir” gives us a view of mother and daughter that “ ‘night, Mother” deprives us of, and for that reason is a relief of sorts. “Souvenir’s” mother (the narrative is conducted through the eyes of the daughter) came of age in the war years (meaning WWII), married young and hastily and, like most women of her generation, lived out the result of her bad choice.

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“Souvenir” is presented in two chapters: one, where daughter Kate is at odds with herself and home from college in a period of life when coming home is an unwanted capitulation, and a few years later, when she returns to say goodby to her dying mother. There’s a strong implication of an incestuous interest in Kate on the part of her father, which may partly explain her later promiscuity. Or is it the age of ‘60s self-abandonment? We’re never sure.

What we do see is her mother’s reluctance to judge, even when she bitterly disagrees with Kate’s conduct (Kate’s lovemaking with a Vietnam War vet in the house on a Sunday morning drives mother tearfully out--to church). Our first view of the mother is of someone tending her mother, who is bedridden and shrunken with age, and has “a smell.” The implication here, carried out to the end, is that women in a family take care of each other.

Where men might say pro patria or some other death-defying slogan and run off in the service of their own glorified aims, this washing and powdering and emptying of bed pans, this dutiful keeping alive of the familial flesh--and keeping in check the unrecapturable curse of disapproval--is what distinguishes and dignifies this mother, who by all outward appearances is a competent but undistinguished woman.

The Itchey Foot reading is done by three actresses: Barbara Tarbuck reads the mother, Mary Crosby reads Kate, Lynne Griffin, the narrator. This observer had some reservations about the script (a boyfriend named Jason is said to be an all-star football player who hates the game so much that he “pukes” over playing; but nobody gets to be an all-star without working hard at his or her game), which later deepened over reading it. It’s self-consciously literary and precocious in spots, its allusiveness is more frustrating than atmospherically evocative (the ending, where mother and daughter ride the Ferris wheel of life, is especially trying). Did they never share a piece of knowledge over the father’s misconduct?

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But in the playing, Tarbuck’s quiet strength was a powerful reminder of how we can never quite come to grips with our parents as human beings, no matter what we come to understand about their weaknesses and strengths. To us, they always have an institutional size and opacity; in the beginning it was our father’s massive hand and our mother’s encompassing, essential breast. Even when they grow old and wasted, they still contain the secret of our origins and live beyond us as a link in our human continuity.

In the reading, too, there’s a powerful statement. On the wheel, Kate looks at her mother, who knows she’s dying. Kate thinks in the third person: “She saw herself in her mother’s wide, blue eyes and felt she was slowly falling into them.” Falling into the knowledge of death and ruthless recognition, she’s also falling into the vessel of her creation.

Performances Sundays, 5:30 p.m., at 801 W. Temple St., (213) 972-7337, through May 11.


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