'Women's' Motherly Ways Prove a Bit Overbearing

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Jessica's lover has just died. Both her illiterate mother and her over-educated ex-mother-in-law have come for a condolence visit. And--as if that weren't enough to spoil any woman's day--her teenage daughter has not returned home from a dance she went to the night before.

Not a good day, but a very good scenario in which to explore all things womanly among three generations of women. "If We Are Women," a play by Joanna McClelland Glass now at South Coast Rep's Second Stage in Costa Mesa, takes its title from a Virgina Woolf quote. "We think back through our mothers, if we are women." Mothering is the topic, and, under the too-meticulous direction of artistic director Martin Benson, the play is so thorough on the subject that it leaves the audience feeling it has completed an honors seminar in mothers and daughters. It may also feel, however, that the course was mandatory.

As in Chekhov, the playwright Jessica most admires, almost nothing happens in the first act. Three women kill time and engage in internal monologues as they wait for the wayward daughter who has failed to come home. Spontaneous games erupt from time to time. In one, the women take turns reciting helpful household hints. Molasses for constipation, porridge for diarrhea. Soap's good on a burn. Aloe's better. "Alas, alas," says the mother-in-law, Rachel. "These are the things we know best."

This homespun-wisdom bake-off seems just a little '70s, or self-consciously Womanly, as do other, more earthy confessions. "I never liked my own primordial smells," says Rachel, in an internal monologue that, strangely enough, Jessica responds to. "It's too ancient for camouflage," she says, speaking always in perfectly writerly sentences.

Jessica, played with a petulant sexiness by Deborah Van Valkenburgh, went from a brutal father to a repressed and scholarly Jewish husband and somewhere along the way made a successful writer of herself. The play's major theme is that however each woman may seek the wisdom of the preceding generation, she must make herself alone.

Jessie's mother, Ruth (the always classy Patricia Fraser), offers a common-sensical approach to life honed on the prairie. Her great regret--that she never learned to read--is contrasted with the book-larnin' of Jessie's mother-in-law: Rachel Cohen (the solid Barbara Tarbuck), a compulsive New York Times crossword puzzle finisher. Rachel, in turn, is in awe of the uneducated Jessica's accomplishments, never having been able to write a book herself, which is the great regret of her life.

Finally, there's Polly (Laurel Smith), the wayward daughter who comes home from losing her virginity and tells her mother and two grandmothers all about it. She also informs them that she has fallen in love, after one night, with a prep school delinquent and plans to forget all about Yale and move to a farm where he will work the land and maybe even learn to make canoe paddles.

A huge hash-it-all-out ensues, including wisdom from the prairie, the shtetl and the human heart.

Glass ("To Grandmother's House We Go," "Play Memory") is a fine writer, and you have to respect her even if you are bored by her characters. She has a wonderful zest for creating her women, but she can never resist over-delineating them. She keeps reminding you what you already know about them over and over. She robs them of mystery.

In another case of leaving no stone unturned, Glass switches from dialogue to internal monologues so that her characters can tell you thoughts that she's perfectly capable of getting across in dialogue. The cultural discomfort constantly bubbling up between Ruth and Rachel is obvious without Rachel turning to the audience in the middle of a scene and confessing, "I never know what to say to her."

These interspersed monologues reach a crescendo at the play's end, when the women launch into an overlapping torrent of internal reverie. With lighting that looks like the heavens have opened up in some biblical drama and devotional-sounding music, this culminating segment is hokey and heavy-handed.

The ending contains a revelation concerning some theater tickets that Jessica recovers from the jacket pocket of her dead lover. If this revelation is a surprise to you, then you have failed the course. Pay close attention to this play, and it will never surprise you. It could move you nevertheless.

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* "If We Are Women," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 14. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Patricia Fraser: Ruth MacMillan

Barbara Tarbuck: Rachel Cohen

Deborah Van Valkenburgh: Jessica MacMillan Cohen

Laurel Smith: Polly Cohen

A South Coast Repertory production. By Joanna McClelland Glass. Directed by Martin Benson. Sets E. Scott Shaffer. Costumes Kay Peebles. Lights Paulie Jenkins. Sound Garth Hemphill. Production manager Michael Mora.

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