Mary-Beth Manning says she has always had the tools to tell her own story; she just wasn’t ready to use them until now.
Manning has been an actress for most of her life, officially taking the professional plunge at the age of 14 in her first role as Joanne Woodward’s daughter in the movie See How She Runs. However, 15 years ago, she would have laughed out loud and dismissed the notion of becoming a producer, therapist and even a writer as a pipe dream.
Now in her LA Weekly nominated and Ovation Recommended one-woman show, Mother which has been running at the Elephant Theatre since April, Manning successfully serves as writer, producer, resident therapist and the myriad characters who grace the stage throughout the 85-minute show.
She says, “This show was one of those things I thought about when it got really hard: ‘If I don’t do this story, I won’t be doing something that means so much to me personally. It’s like my valentine to my mother; if it’s my story, and it’s honest, it can’t be wrong.”
Mother is a true story about Manning’s relationship with her own loud, loving, bossy, Bostonian, Irish Catholic mother. The story begins with Manning’s childhood perception of her mother and weaves through her adult years as she struggles to define a separate identity from the clutches of her maternal relationship.
Manning dons many hats during the performance, leading with her brash but “adorable” mother to her soft spoken but solid Irish father. She also interprets her at times unstable sister, her multiple alcoholic boyfriends and the list goes on. Each person’s quirks and reactions are so vivid that Manning’s meticulous character study is easily forgotten; it dissipates into the soft wash of the lights as the audience exchanges the clever impersonations for the experience of beholding real people onstage.
“Everyone who has seen it has been moved by it,” she says. “I mean people come up to me after the show crying and just want to tell me their stories.”
Manning always knew her story had great significance to her personally but is extremely pleased to find she has provided her audience with a theatrical catharsis. “As adults it’s a luxury to be understood. If you can relate to a book or a movie, or even a play, you take a sigh of relief and say, ‘I’m not crazy.'”
This sigh of relief comes about 50 minutes into the show as Manning shares the intense internal and external struggle she had with her mother’s long bout with cancer. Although cancer is a universal audience tearjerker, her story goes deeper as it moves to something very human and very basic.
While generating this uniting experience, Manning provokes and soothes her audience by making sure she doesn’t lie down on the long couch during the show. “Theatre can’t be therapy for the performer, even in a show like this. If I cry a lot during the play it won’t work. I can’t indulge in my own sentiment; I have to make my story the star.”
However, in the house she encourages emotions to flow with both her story and a complimentary glass of wine. “Theatre should be therapy for the audience. If it can be provocative, or make you think about your life, it is a good form of theatre,” she says.
In Mother, the therapy session is intense and Manning holds herself accountable for the post-show audience reactions. “The response of the audience moves me,” says Manning. “They surprise me; I am never overwhelmed by people crying afterwards. I am open to it and take full responsibility for how the show might affect people. All I can do is listen.”
Although she has gotten the desired reaction, Manning was not always sure she was telling her story the “right” way. She did not lack the typical inspiration that causes most writer’s block. She had the inspiration. She had been doing impersonations of her mother to her mother since she was a young child.
“I wasn’t trying to find her voice, I already had it,” says Manning. “I felt like I had her permission, I just wanted to be authentic.”
Terrified she was not a qualified playwright, she was told she just had to dig deeper because there was something there amongst all the funny family stories. “Since college, writing was something I thought other people did, ‘They are writers, not me,'” she says.
She knew she was not writing the piece for her acting career or for an agent. No, it was far bigger than that. She had to write this because of the personal importance it held to the memory of her mother and the complex relationship they shared.
“Grief is processed differently and after writing this I am a little less judgmental of that,” says Manning. “I have more of a live and let live attitude through writing, and what urged me on was the joy of doing it and the story I just had to express.”
After playing with it for a year and honing in on the spirit and essence of the dialogue, with the help of her sister, Manning was able to bring her own spiritual solution to fruition.
It received a nomination for best solo performance from LA Weekly, was stamped Ovation Recommended, and she was asked to come to the New York festival of plays entitled “Mama Drama.”
Although Mother is a one-woman show, Manning says she relied heavily on others for support and criticism to get the play to where it is now. Diana Castle, the original director, and Alan Watt, Manning’s husband and award winning novelist, were instrumental in guiding Manning through her own emotions and words to produce something that was meaningful both to her and others.
“During the writing stage, my husband would tell me if something was bad, heck even now he would still tell me if something is bad, and wouldn’t let me go up there till I had somehow fixed it,” says Manning.
But Manning’s main support remains in the heart of the project. Her mother.
At each performance Manning is absorbed in a whirlwind of activities, attempting to fulfill all the hectic duties of a producer before the show. But after crossing her fingers that everyone got tickets, a couple of minutes before curtain she takes out a photo of her mother and says, “Mom this is for you.”
In the tiny 30 something seat theatre Manning experiences a letting go and offers her buoyant valentine of tears and Irish humor to her mother.
“I am up there all alone, yes, but I have my mom right there with me,” says Manning. “Plus the audience is so close to me, it’s so intimate, they become my other character in the play,” says Manning. “They become my friend.”
After finally finding the writer, producer and therapist within her, Manning’s healing as a person and as an artist has come full circle. She no longer relies on her trepidation to map her potential.
“Whatever we do to express ourselves, we do it because we have passion,” says Manning. “It is easier to walk away from that passion than to drive into it because when you do, like I have, you suddenly realize you have a responsibility for your gift.” A responsibility to share her forgiveness, her life lessons and of course her mother’s legacy.
Mother, produced by Mary-Beth Manning, continues Sun., 7 pm; through Sept. 26. Tickets: $15. Studio Stage at the Elephant Theatre, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood; 323.960.7779 or plays411.com/mother.