Moms on Center Stage, From Burbank to NoHo to Little Tokyo

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Visiting my mother on her birthday last week, I was struck by her resilience. She has survived nine decades. Although she and my father were born the same year, she has lived an extra 10 years. My visit with her whetted my appetite for seeing a few plays about strong moms, and fortunately I found three formidable mothers holding court in theaters in the southeastern San Fernando Valley.

Let’s start at the Colony Theatre with Clara Nowak (Ellen Crawford), the mother in Tom Dudzick’s Miracle on South Division Street. For decades, as her East Buffalo neighborhood deteriorated around her, this woman hasn’t budged from her perch as keeper of the flame for her Polish immigrant father’s legacy. Yet before the play is over, she demonstrates that flexibility can be as important as strength in the endurance sweepstakes.

Karianne Flaathen, Ellen Crawford, Brian Ibsen and Meghan Andrews in "Miracle on South Division Street." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Karianne Flaathen, Ellen Crawford, Brian Ibsen and Meghan Andrews in “Miracle on South Division Street.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

According to family tradition, Clara’s father had a vision of the Virgin Mary at his barber shop, and to commemorate the event, he had a statue of the Holy Mother built on the site. Nearly 65 years later, Clara maintains the statue, runs an adjacent weekly soup kitchen, and relies on her three young-adult children to serve as docents for the occasional tourists who arrive to behold the Mary statue. But Clara resents the fact that her beloved Catholic Church has refused to give her homemade shrine its stamp of approval. And recently she has noticed that at least two of her children are beginning to resent their roles as greeters.

Does Dudzick have some surprises in store for what otherwise sounds like a formulaic heart-warmer? He certainly does. These revelations make for some rich comic moments inside the theater, so I won’t discuss them here. But because the play’s set-up sounds as if it occupies such a dusty corner of all-Catholic culture, I do want to assure non-Catholics that they, too, are likely to enjoy Dudzick’s offerings — especially theatergoers who might be observing Hanukkah next week. Yes, this is a very ecumenical seasonal play.

As Clara, Crawford is a diminutive ball of energy, refusing to let her small stature restrict her sense of command. Her presumably dead husband is barely mentioned. But as circumstances change, under the prodding of daughter Ruth (Karianne Flaathen) and with the assistance of Clara’s son Jimmy (Brian Ibsen), so does Clara — and the family is closer as a result. Brian Shnipper directed, with complete assurance.

Moving from east to west across the Valley, I next came upon Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats, at Theatre Banshee. The mom in this story, set in contemporary Ireland, is based on the character of Medea. So I don’t think I’m revealing any big secret when I point out that this character is indeed formidable, but she isn’t nearly as flexible as Clara is in Miracle on South Division Street.

Erin Barnes, Rebecca Wackler, Talyan Wright, Joseph Patrick O'Malley, Barry Lynch and Kacey Camp in "By the Bog of Cats." Photo by Moses Umbeke.
Erin Barnes, Rebecca Wackler, Talyan Wright, Joseph Patrick O’Malley, Barry Lynch and Kacey Camp in “By the Bog of Cats.” Photo by Moses Umbeke.

The forces arrayed against Hester Swane (Kacey Camp) are also more formidable than those lined up against Clara. Hester, abandoned by her own parents, is a tinker who has spent most of her life living in a trailer at the Bog of Cats.  For 14 years, she found romance with Carthage (Joseph Patrick O’Malley), a man 10 years younger than she is, and they have a seven-year-old daughter, Josie (Talyan Wright). But now Carthage has found the younger and wealthier Caroline (Erin Barnes), whose crafty father Xavier (Barry Lunch) is trying to drive Hester away not only from the house she and Carthage shared but also from the bog altogether.

The play is in three acts, and the first act introduces some mystical elements and eccentric subsidiary characters who add lyricism and a little humor (specifically Casey Kramer’s Catwoman, who snacks on mice). They also contribute to a sense that the playwright is becoming, well, a bit bogged down. But the second act, set at the wedding festivities of Carthage and Caroline, is a brilliant piece of quick, brutal drama, highlighted by the presence of not just the bride but also two other women in white.

You probably already know what happens in act three, but Sean Branney makes the horror feel shocking yet inevitable. Indeed, the onstage depiction of events that occur offstage in Euripides’ original Medea adds considerable power to the narrative. Camp’s performance is unflinching, but it’s also balanced by moments of maternal tenderness that help us understand how Hester arrives at her horrible decision a little more clearly than we might if the violence had occurred offstage.

The third Big-Mama-in-a-Play I saw this weekend is currently in NoHo, in Ketti Frings’ adaptation of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. This 1957 drama won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but it’s hardly ever revived. I don’t think it’s been done professionally around LA since 1986, when the Pasadena Playhouse tackled it. But now the Production Company has leaped into the breach in its new home at the Secret Rose.

Alison Blanchard and Geoffrey Wade in "Look Homeward, Young Angel." Photo courtesy of
Alison Blanchard and Geoffrey Wade in “Look Homeward, Angel.” Photo by Joanna Strapp.

It’s a play that might never be produced, let alone win a prize, if it were introduced today. It has too many characters and a meandering narrative line. It doesn’t focus as much as you might expect on the young man who was Wolfe’s fictionalized version of himself in his late teens in Asheville, North Carolina.

Of course that means that the other characters are allowed more stage time than you might expect, and one of them, young Eugene’s mother Eliza Gant (Alison Blanchard), struck me as the hub not only of the family but also of the play. She runs Dixieland, the family’s boarding house, and also buys and sells real estate on the side. Her husband W. O. Gant (Geoffrey Wade) is an alcoholic whose stone-cutting business seems almost like a hobby more than a profitable business, so it’s Eliza who keeps the family spinning — and it’s Eliza who sometimes doesn’t understand how Eugene and his siblings feel the need to break away from the family and from Dixieland.

Eliza and Clara (in Miracle on South Division Street) have a lot in common and would probably empathize with each other. Blanchard delivers a brilliant depiction of a mother as queen bee — yet, like Clara, she eventually has to acknowledge that the times and her children are a-changin’.

T. L. Kolman’s staging clocked in at more than three hours Friday. That’s too long, although perhaps the presence of only one bathroom at the Secret Rose had a lot to do with that. The intermission seemed twice as long as the intermissions are in houses that have at least two bathrooms.

But I’m glad I got to see Look Homeward, Angel, not only because it can be interesting to catch revivals of long-forgotten Pulitzer winners, but also because I’m glad I got to know Eliza Gant. As embodied by Blanchard, she’s a woman who doesn’t hesitate to take charge — in the era before women could vote.

Miracle on South Division Street, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Dark Thanksgiving weekend. Closes Dec. 16. 818-558-7000 x 15.

By the Bog of Cats, Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec 8.  818-846-5323.

Look Homeward, Angel, Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood.  Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Dark Thanksgiving weekend. Closes Dec 14. 800-838-3006.

Speaking of strong women, this weekend I also took in East West Players’ premiere of The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back. Three of the four widows in this play have been mothers.

I panned the first installment of this staged sitcom series, the original The Nisei Widows Club in 2003, and I missed the second installment. But this supposedly final chapter is much better than the original, in part because this one concentrates almost entirely on the women. In the original, one of the women’s husbands came back as a ghost, and another unrelated man somehow became a major character when he applied for membership in the club and then posed in drag as a female psychic to support his own bid for membership. It was if the series were jumping the shark in the pilot episode.

June Kyoko Lu and Tui Asau in "The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back." Photo by Michael Lamont.
June Kyoko Lu and Tui Asau in “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

In the current How Tomi Got Her Groove Back, directed by Amy Hill, Tomi (Jeanne Sakata) has just buried her son, and her three fellow club members (Takayo Fischer, Emily Kuroda, June Kyoko Lu) join forces to help her step back into life — first with a yoga class in Venice and then with hula lessons in Hawaii. Tui Asau is the only man on stage, playing two brothers — the yoga instructor and then the hula teacher (however, we’re told that the hula guy was adopted into the yoga guy’s family, so it’s strange that they look like biological twins).

The dialogue by “Betty Tokudani” (Tim Dang, Marilyn Tokuda and Denise Iketani) is loaded with one-liners and, in the first act, dotted with some surprisingly topical references to Little Tokyo life — Tomi refers to having torn tickets as an East West usher, and someone makes a snarky comment about the Urs Fischer sculpture that’s next door, in the Geffen Contemporary parking lot. As I wrote last week, such local references can help an audience relate more closely to the material.

Of course, some of the gags sound limp. But in the end, not only Tomi but the series itself gets its groove back, with a holiday-appropriate warm and fuzzy ending.

The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back, David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo, LA. Wed-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Dark Nov. 27-28, Dec 4. Closes Dec 8 (but the Dec 1 and 8 performances are already sold out). 213-625-7000. 

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.