There were years she did not let me touch her . . . [and] my wisdom came too late . . . She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear . . . Only help her to know – make it so there is cause for her to know – that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.
– Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”
Playwright Amber Regan’s Mandalas and Mirrors – on stage through June 30 as Sunstone Studios’ entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin festival – has an irresistible premise: a 13-year-old American boy raised in a conservative Christian household is actually the 15th Dalai Lama.
Jessica, his resistant mother, is having none of it; when the Tibetan Buddhist monks living down the street insist on young Dylan’s destiny, she worries that he’s been molested – or, at a minimum, twisted by “Asian double talk” that’s gone to his head.
Jessica will give voice to plenty of such nonsense on her long road to enlightenment, which takes her from suburban America to northern India as she stands by and tries to protect her boy; among other things, Regan’s play is a plea for tolerance and understanding in a divided world.
So why, notwithstanding all the troubling things coming out of Jessica’s mouth, did I find myself on her side – even as Jessica’s sister-in-law, Dylan’s twin sister, and monks Chodak and Tseten played variations on the theme that Jessica’s conservative close-mindedness was harming her son?
Nine years ago, I wrote a column about the admittedly imperfect but also put-upon mothers I’d seen in three concurrently running productions (all, alas, staged by now-defunct Milwaukee theater companies): Theatre Unchained’s Carrie, In Tandem Theatre’s The Glass Menagerie, and The Splinter Group’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
“Those stories don’t square with our suffocating cult of motherhood,” I wrote at the time, “which expects more from women than any human being should ever be forced to give.” Instead, I continued, “these three shows remind us that a mother’s love is never simple and rarely easy.”
Ditto for Jessica, which may be why I found myself thinking about that column as I watched Regan’s play. Jessica’s husband has just died of cancer – after secretly selling the family home out from under her, appointing one of the monks as the kids’ trustee, and expressing the wish that Dylan be whisked off to a Tibetan monastery in India to train for his role as a world leader.
The wonder isn’t that Jessica – much like the mothers in the above three plays – falls back on the world she knows, however limiting and narrow it can be, for support.
What’s far more amazing is the lengths to which she goes to honor her dead husband’s wishes, collaborate with the monks, and nevertheless protect her kid; part of why the family ends up in the hills above Dharamshala is because she worries Dylan is “soft” and will therefore be bullied if he’s raised in America.
Yes, Jessica can be a pill; so can Amanda Wingfield, who rarely gets the empathy or props she deserves for fiercely protecting and loving her children. But one never doubts the truth of what Jessica herself claims, when accused of overreacting to death threats against her son: “Don’t tell me I’m overreacting. His safety is the most important thing. I need to make sure he’s safe.”
Sure: that’s the same sort of statement made by overly protective parents worldwide – and by toxic right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty trying to shield their kids from reality by banning books while fostering bigotry and intolerance. Such a unilateral focus on misguided concepts of safety can promote tunnel vision and stifle dialogue about childcare, education, and our future.
At the same time, there’s something suspect about how readily our society goes after “soccer moms” and their progeny (helicopter moms, snowplow moms, etc.) because they’re doing the best they can – in the midst of a spiraling mental health crisis among teens and tweens alike – to give their children a haven in a frequently heartless world.
One need not agree with everything Jessica says to nevertheless chafe when the more insufferably high-handed of the two monks caring for her son tells her “to let go of this mother identity you have created for yourself.” And one wants to plop her teenaged son in the timeout chair when he chimes in, telling Jessica “I fear you are letting your emotions take over.”
Can you blame her if she does?
“My kids . . . are all I have left,” Jessica says, in a late, climactic scene. “For one second I just want to breathe and feel safe, but all of you hate me so much you want to take them too,” she continues.
No wonder she’s upset. I would be, too.
One of the many strengths of the World Premiere Wisconsin festival has been the sheer multitude of its complex and sympathetic portraits of mothers, doing the best they could even as they made their share of mistakes while negotiating often extraordinarily trying circumstances. Some illustrative examples:
In Ralph and Mary Ehlinger’s Lincoln & Liberty Too (Play-by-Play Theatre), two mothers try to remain strong for their children as well as each other while their husbands fight in the American Civil War.
In Lauren Gunderson’s Artemisia (Forward Theater), a mother loses four of her five children before tussling with a fifth, Prudenzia, who approaches adulthood proving to be as headstrong as the young Artemisia herself had once been.
In Danielle Dresden’s A Woman Is . . . (TNW Ensemble Theater), Kiki Moritsugu squarely confronts the many reasons why she needed to free herself from her mother’s suffocating influence, even as she celebrates how loving and generous her mother sometimes was – and even as she reflects on what kind of mother she herself has tried to be.
In The Kenosha Verbatim Project (Carthage College) the long shadow cast by
systemic racism in America – and the resulting segregation afflicting schools and neighborhoods – influences mothers’ decisions regarding where their kids should be raised, while forcing one mother to helplessly witness all the ways her Black children are marginalized and excluded.
In Sean Grennan’s A Rock Sails By (Peninsula Players Theatre), the sometimes fractious relationship between a brilliant but curmudgeonly mother and her daughter sets sail toward an uncertain future, in headwinds that include the mother’s early onset dementia and all that remains unresolved and unspoken between the two of them.
And in Sam D. White’s Hush the Waves (Strollers Theatre), a mother who had herself given birth in the 1940s as a single, 17-year-old teen tries to help her alternately brash and scared 17-year-old daughter through a similar pregnancy in the 1970s.
White’s play readily came to mind while watching the final WPW opening on Sunday night: a concert reading at the The Weidner in Green Bay of Erin Hunsader and Haesun Suh’s Out of the Blue, a new musical featuring the relationship between a Green Bay mother and her adopted – and now pregnant – 16-year-old Korean daughter.
As with her 1970’s teen counterpart in Hush the Waves – and as with young Dylan in Regan’s Mandalas and Mirrors – 16-year-old Jenny can be self-centered and difficult; she’s not shy about telling adoptive mother Iris that Iris isn’t her “real” mother.
Jenny’s birth mother Yun – who appears in the play in wrenching flashbacks featuring some of composer Suh’s darkest and most lyrical music – had herself become pregnant and given birth to Jenny at 16, later giving her up in the hope that her daughter might enjoy a better life.
Jenny had long clung to the hope that Yun would come back for her; nurturing this fantasy is just another version of the impossible standard to which she’s long held Iris.
In both cases, a mother isn’t an actual person but an idealized trope, embodying our vision of an all-encompassing, womb-like totality in a time before our introduction to a world in which we’re inevitably separated from and disappointed by those whose love couldn’t ultimately protect us.
Confronted with life’s realities, we blame Mom – much as Adam blamed Eve – because we’ve been banished from Eden.
“How hard it is to be a mother,” Iris plaintively sings, midway through Out of the Blue. “It’s like Atlas holding up the world,” she continues. “It’s like Moses parting the Red Sea . . . Maybe he can do it. But can we?”
Out of the Blue makes clear that it’s not even fair to ask such a question – even as Iris, like Jessica in Mandalas and Mirrors, leaves her comfort zone and travels to Asia, trying to protect her child from hurt and harm while leaving her daughter the space she needs to make her own discoveries and decisions.
What’s even more impressive is how Hunsader and Suh’s musical then doubles down, insisting on not only empathizing with Iris, but also giving Yun her props as birth mother.
Even as Iris insists toward journey’s end that the “tie that binds” mother and child is ultimately less about blood than the sweat equity called “daily life,” Yun is given room to express her own mothering instinct, toward a child she surrenders at the orphanage door precisely because she loves that child so much.
It’s telling that Yun only gives Jenny up when the young girl is already four; Hunsader and Suh couldn’t have made clearer that Yun had hoped and tried to raise her daughter herself before confronting the increasingly obvious reality that she couldn’t.
“I could not provide, not provide,” Yun laments in singing “Don’t Ask Why” to the little girl she’ll never see again. “I wanted you to have a better life.” Significantly, that song plays early and late, bookending Jenny’s story and underscoring Iris’ generous acknowledgement that Yun’s mothering made her own role as mother possible.
When an angry and hurt Jenny asks how Yun – or any mother – could leave her child, Iris doesn’t diss her predecessor. Instead she praises her. “I know it’s hard to understand but I’m sure she did it because she thought she was doing what was best for you,” Iris says to Jenny.
“I was always hoping we’d meet her one day,” Iris later says to her daughter of Yun, “so I could thank her for giving us such a wonderful daughter.”
In Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” a great story about a working-class mother’s thorny relationship with her daughter, the narrating mother explains the agonizing decision to place her daughter in a “convalescent home” by noting that “we were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth” – even as she also makes clear how much she loves her daughter.
A lifelong socialist, Olsen never lost sight in her work of the context within which mothers try to raise their children, in a country which spends fewer per capita public dollars on childcare than any advanced country in the world, while being one of only a handful of countries in the world that doesn’t provide paid family leave.
It takes a village to raise a child. When you live in a country with as thin a commitment to community as our own, that responsibility devolves onto individual families. And since the division of labor within families still disproportionately burdens women, it’s mothers who are tasked with raising our future. No wonder they get blamed when that future doesn’t pan out.
It’s no accident that in the WPW plays profiling mothers and discussed here, the men are MIA: off to war, dead, absent, or largely irrelevant. Even in Out of the Blue, Jenny’s father and Iris’ husband is a stock character, available for comic relief but otherwise relegated to the background.
Perhaps, many of these plays suggest, we’d be less apt to blame our mothers for life’s inevitable disappointments if they weren’t always the ones saddled with delivering the bad news. And insofar as those mothers exhibit flaws or make mistakes, perhaps they’d do better if they had some help.
Were mothers able to play an integral role in our lives without being forced to fly solo, might we look elsewhere when – inevitably – they fail to solve all of the world’s problems? Might we learn to better appreciate all that they’ve done – and how many sacrifices they’ve made – to help us become who we are, rather than zeroing in on all the ways they fall short?
In a festival which has showcased so many strong women – mothers and non-mothers alike –
the plays comprising World Premiere Wisconsin have consistently posed such questions, tacitly raising larger ones about the choices we make and how we invest in and care for each other.
I write these words days after the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature’s Finance Committee voted, at 2:30 in the morning, to gut the Child Care Counts program, which had distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in childcare support across the state.
That Committee also rejected Governor Tony Evers’ proposed family medical leave program (and his proposal for increased arts funding; more on that in my final column on Friday). It did so at a time when the state is sitting on a $7 billion surplus – and while those same Republicans are proposing a tax cut that disproportionately favors households earning more than $405,550.
Will we blame that legislature, when our kids don’t get what they need in the years to come? Or will we once again turn to everyone’s favorite scapegoat and blame Mom? As Olsen’s narrating mother asks, “you think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key?”
In reframing how we see mothers and motherhood, numerous World Premiere Wisconsin plays have not only raised but also radically revised such questions. Perhaps most important, they have also suggested that we stop looking to our mothers for all the answers.
There’s no fairy godmother with a magical wand – or key – who can make things right with the world; let’s stop wishing one might suddenly appear to save us.
If we’re going to unlock the door opening onto a better and fairer future, we’ll need to fashion such a key by collaborating to make it. What progeny we might raise – and what a world they might build – if we’d open our hearts and minds so that we can mother them together.
With the exception of Peninsula Players Theatre’s A Rock Sails By and Sunstone Studios’ Mandalas and Mirrors, the WPW productions discussed here have closed. For more information on both of them as well as every other WPW play, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/all-shows/.