In 1907 Anna M. Jarvis, a West Virginian spinster greatly mourning her mom’s death, began a letter-writing campaign. She wanted to establish a national celebration in reverence of American motherhood. Ms. Jarvis met with great success. Most states soon adopted the holiday and the House of Representatives unanimously voted that all officials of the federal government wear a tributary white carnation on the second Sunday in May. Recognizing the awesome clout of a congressionally mandated boutonniere, in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed Mother’s Day into law. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet that mama Delia Byrd received neither FTD bouquet, nor Hallmark Card, nor Russell Stover’s sampler last Sunday—at least not the Delia Byrd who opens New York Theatre Workshop’s Cavedweller, Kate Moira Ryan’s adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s novel.
The stage lights rise on 40-year-old Delia —persuasively played by Deirdre O’Connell—mooning about in a booze-stained dressing gown as she contemplates the high-speed demise of rock star Randall Pritchard, her ex-lover, ex-bandmate, and father of her youngest child. That child, Cissy (Merritt Wever), has hidden under her bed, shouting, “I hate you more than Satan and all his devils!” Amanda and Dede, Delia’s older daughters, share a similar attitude. Mired in Cayro, Georgia, they feel little affection for the “adulterous hippie bitch” who abandoned them 14 years ago to run off with the band Mud Dog. Yet Randall’s death puts Georgia on Delia’s mind—she impulsively decides to pack up Cissy and drive South to reclaim her family.
Despite some limited interaction with the grandfather who raised Delia, the husband who beat her, and a gentle suitor, it’s the women’s stories that feature here—Delia’s, Cissy’s, devout Amanda’s, devil-may-care Dede’s. Delia’s best friend, Rosemary, a fast-liv- ing songwriter rendered earthy and alluring by Adriane Lenox, also makes frequent appearances. How these dissimilar women improvise a community is the play’s interest and strength, allowing generous roles to talented actresses.
Unlike many literary adaptations, which can feel cramped or rushed, Ryan and director Michael Greif’s stage version of Cavedweller gives the narrative and characters space to unfurl. O’Connell, Lenox, and Jenny Maguire as Dede all give fierce and textured turns. (Wever’s Cissy and Shannon Burkett’s Amanda don’t unfurl much—it’s tough when you’re one-dimensional—but it’s unclear whether the fault lies with actor or director, or both.) The lead performances compensate for the play’s glitches—the stereotyping of minor characters, the confusing of the principal metaphor, and a tendency to let pleasant acerbity devolve into a sentimental morass of Cayro syrup. A further compensation: Hedwig composer Stephen Trask and downtown chanteuse Julia Greenberg provide the music for Mud Dog. The songs, reminiscent of L.A. punks X on fewer amphetamines, make the scene changes a source of eager anticipation. In a play of ample rewards, they are another wild gift.
From the bizarre of Georgia to the bazaar of Morocco is a journey of a few steps across 4th Street, to The Earth’s Sharp Edge playing at La MaMa. Apparently, budget cutbacks have not yet compromised theatrical airport safety. Upon entering the upstairs club space, a mustached man in dark glasses and officious uniform interrogates audience members as to their place of origin and the purpose of their visit. Your intrepid reviewer, you’ll be pleased to learn, was not considered a security threat. Having presented her passport (read: ticket stub), she was allowed to find her seat unmolested. (Her sister was less fortunate, but then again, her sister is a security threat.)
On a recent return from Marrakech, The Earth’s Sharp Edge creator Thaddeus Phillips fared worse. Put off by Phillips’s beard and dark coat, a Newark Airport official began to search his carry-on, wherein he found a book entitled Extreme Islam. (Phillips had been in Morocco studying Arabic on a grant. The book contained information on nonviolent Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled.) Consequently, Phillips found himself detained for several hours, while his shoes were analyzed and his luggage sifted. He’s been toting around the emotional baggage ever since.
The Earth’s Sharp Edge begins with Phillips’s airport follies, then takes a discursive tour through assorted souks, language lessons, stewardess trainings, Khaled’s exploits, and numerous gestures toward Casablanca. (Phillips fantasizes an ill-starred romance between himself and Khaled.) As itineraries go, it’s eventful but not particularly well-organized. There’s plenty of sightseeing but no great sense of purpose. At many a point, it might have behooved Phillips to skip the scenic route.
Then again, it’s the scenery that proves most engaging. Phillips has a background in dance and puppet theater. His movement work and his manipulation of objects (toy camels, miniature airplanes, mounds of sand) prove original. The script, which Phillips developed in collaboration with Colorado’s Buntport Theater, seems to have derived from improvisation and could have benefited from better shaping. (Happily, the majority of its platitudes are in French.) Perhaps it’s no surprise that a play concerned with airports should have such trouble with the terminal—The Earth’s Sharp Edge drags out its ending insensibly. At least it didn’t require the audience to exit through customs—a good thing, as your intrepid reviewer had plenty to declare.