Sins of the Mother

Playwright: Israel Horvitz
Director: Scot Whitney
Producer: Harlequin Productions
Dates: Jan 22 – Feb 14, 2009

Independent Review – Seattle Performs
February 14, 2009

Hurry! See this fantastic performance before it closes. The first act left me in me awe but the second was even better. Gripping story blends humor, drama and suspense. Impressive acting by this local cast. Go!

‘Sins of the Mother’ marvelous, intense
ALEC CLAYTON – Tacoma News Tribune
Published: 01/30/09

Pictured: from left, Zachariah Robinson, David Nail, Brian Claudio Smith and Scott C. Brown. Photo by Tor Clausen.

Pictured: from left, Zachariah Robinson, David Nail, Brian Claudio Smith and Scott C. Brown. Photo by Tor Clausen.

Harlequin Productions in Olympia has scored a coup that I believe is unheard of for a small town community theater. They are producing the West Coast premiere of a new play by the renowned playwright Israel Horovitz, “Sins of the Mother.”

“Our production is actually the world premiere of the two-act play,” said Harlequin artistic director Scot Whitney in an e-mail. He explained that Horovitz first wrote it as a one-act and later expanded it into the current play, but since it was previously performed as a one-act with the same title Harlequin can’t advertise it as a world premiere.

While Horovitz was in Olympia last year to visit his daughter who lives here, he saw “Shining City” at Harlequin. Impressed with what he saw, he asked Whitney if he would consider directing his new play, which is set to open next year in New York with Ethan Hawke.

This is the big time for little Olympia.

“Sins of the Mother” opened Jan. 22 to a sparse crowd in Olympia’s State Theater. It is the most intense, realistic and gritty play I have seen since I started writing this column five years ago.

Set in an almost abandoned union hall and in the living room of an out-of-work “lumper” in Gloucester, Mass., in the 1980s, the play delves into the loves and hates of five men who grew up together and whose families have been connected for generations in a town where everyone knows everyone, and most personal secrets are not secret at all.

All but one of the men are “lumpers” – their word for stevedores. Bobbie (Scott C. Brown), the oldest of the men, is caring for his wife who is dying from a sexually transmitted disease. He is a Vietnam vet who killed many North Vietnamese. He can’t let it go, and letting go turns out to be a central theme of the play. Dubbah (David Nail) is out of work like them all and caring for a mother in the late stages of cancer who doesn’t even recognize him any more.

Douggie (Zachariah Robinson) is the gentle kid who left town years ago and has just returned. Frankie (Brian Claudio Smith) is an explosive, wisecracking young man who insists on bringing old hatreds and suspicions to a boil. And finally there’s Philly (Claudio Smith in an amazing dual role), the twin brother who escaped to a better life and whose arrogantly suave exterior hides a wounded child inside.

Anything I might say about the plot would spoil it; suffice it to say that it is well-crafted and full of surprises and that the dialogue runs the gamut from gut-wrenching to raucously funny. The quirky speech patterns and repetition of pet phrases, the strong sense of place and of history and the uncompromising realism put this play in league with the works of such great modern playwrights as Arthur Miller and August Wilson.

All four actors are outstanding. Claudio Smith shows great range of emotion in portraying two extremely different characters, one crude and boisterous and the other a study in coolly controlled rage.

Brown inhabits the character of Bobbie in such a natural and believable way as to be convincing that even a man capable of the worst of crimes can elicit sympathy. He’s a big man. I’ve seen him in other roles, and I swear he looks like he put on 40 pounds and 5 inches in height for this role; and it’s all in the way he carries himself.

Robinson is a natural as the quiet, innocent and conflicted Douggie. Nail, as Dubbah, is the moral compass of the play. His facial contortions show his fear and scream out in pain like a Rodney King character pleading “Can’t we all just get along?” with nobody listening.

Scenic and lighting designer Jill Carter, and costume designers Lucy Gentry and Asa Brown Thornton set the tone for a play grounded in place and time, and Whitney’s spot-on direction permeates throughout.

If you can afford only one play in a year, make it this one – unless you are easily offended by coarse language, racial epithets and staged violence.

Sin Tax – New England town comes ashore at Harlequin
Jan 29, 2009

Scott C. Brown with Zachariah Robinson (l) and Brian Claudio Smith (r).

Scott C. Brown with Zachariah Robinson (l) and Brian Claudio Smith (r). Photo by Tor Clausen.

One thing audience members can expect from Harlequin Productions is that its plays will be a journey of some sort. The Olympia theater’s current travel log takes the audience to the town of Gloucester, Mass. The town is dead as the fishing industry has long fallen into the sea, and the fishermen who remain just show up at the union hall to get their unemployment checks signed so they can return to their workless lives.

This West Coast premiere of Israel Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother is a subtly dark comedy that centers on the fact that Douggie Shimmatarro (played by Zachariah Robinson) has returned to his hometown in search of work after escaping to the outside world 10 years ago. His family ties to the area create a less-than-pleasant welcome home at the former fish processing employment hall.

His mother was at the center of a rash of drug addictions and AIDS cases in the town, and the return of her son brings all those long-simmering bad feelings crashing to the present day.

What drives this show is the solid acting leveled by the balance of the cast. Robinson, David Nail, Brian Claudio Smith, and Scott C. Brown seem to not be just acting on a stage, but they transform themselves into townie fishermen. They landed such believable characters that I could almost smell the fish stink from their clothes.

This is one of those subtle shows that can’t be passively watched. It has to be filleted and dissected to be fully enjoyed and appreciated. The show has some quirky funny parts that are more stress relief from tense scenes than great one-liners, but the mix of emotions that span the show create a buffet of great theater moments.

The whole show is presented in a simple set that quickly jumps from the union hall to a funeral home as the show takes an interesting twist that is best left alone in a review for people thinking about watching the show. Suffice it to say that the show gets interesting in the final minutes.

Independent Review – Seattle Performs
January 28, 2009

Sharp musical dialogue, brilliant casting of four actors on a hot plate of a set are just a few elements that make SINS OF THE MOTHER such an engaging piece of theatre by Harlequin Productions at the State Theatre in Olympia. Director Scot Whitney collaborated with world class playwright Israel Horovitz to produce this premiere work which I predict is destined for the New York stage. Set in Horovitz’s favorite small town of Gloucester, Massachusetts this 75 minute play tells a riveting story of a handful of working men and the forced choices that change their lives. The production brilliantly captures the cadence and stark humor of these Gloucester lobstermen who could just as well been Puget Sound fishermen or unemployed loggers from Hoquiam. The ensemble of Scott C. Brown, David Nail, Zachariah Robinson and Brian Claudio Smith are uniformly outstanding with clean, economical direction by Scot Whitney and powerful fight choreography by Robert Macdougall. I encourage you to catch a performance before it closes on February 14.

Independent Review – Seattle Performs
January 27, 2009

Sins of the Mother is one of the very best pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. I was completely blown away by the performances, the dialogue, the direction and was kept on the edge of my seat with the unexpected twists and turns within the script.

Israel Horovitz is an incredible playwright and it is a gift that he has brought his work to the lovely and always powerful Harlequin Productions Theatre. Harlequin is known for their superb work and challenging theatre. This show is definitely one of their bests – and that is saying a lot since there has been so many brilliant works that birth from their stage!

I am looking forward to seeing Sins of the Mother again before it closes and I suggest you do as well! You really need to make an extra effort to see this one. It is an “Art at its best” opportunity that you will not want to miss!

Independent Review – Seattle Performs
January 27, 2009

In the introduction to one of his plays, Israel Horovitz says “It is remarkable how our lives take small, unexpected turns to places we never really imagined we’d visit, and how we go with it…how we accept our new surroundings with a simple shrug and ‘Life’s like that.’ Because it’s simply true: Life’s like that.”

If you go to see the premiere production of Sins of the Mother, (which you should, or miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated opportunity) you will be able to read in your program the extraordinary story about how a legend came to be in Olympia to work with director Scot Whitney on his new play before it opens in New York.

It’s sheer magic that he’s been here, and that we can experience this now. It’s not just an evening out, to see a play: it’s a life-changing experience.

Plus: 1) you can see it before those know-it-alls on Broadway; 2) you can pay a fraction of the price you’d pay to go be a know-it-all and see it on Broadway 3) Israel mentioned in the talk afterward that he may be changing things around. I will probably send him death threats if he changes the end; it blew me away.
Go, be one of the few people in the world to see it while it is the shape it is now.

I am not one of those muffin-headed reviewers who is going to detail the plot for you. In fact, I’m not going to tell you the plot at all this time. It is a mystery: go unravel it for yourself.

I’m going to start by saying a lot of things that need to be said, and read, about Israel Horovitz, living genius. Please appreciate him while he’s here with us; don’t pass him by on the street like people did Van Gogh (could have bought his paintings for two bucks, dummies! Could have had an insight into how he sees this world!), and then celebrate his work later. A lot of smart people are celebrating Israel’s work, all over the world -in fact he was leaving the play I saw in order to catch a flight to Paris to be at another of his productions, then to London, then to Greece- so join us. Bring your brain, he’ll make you use it. Bring your heart too, it will be fed fizzy lifting drinks.

This man knows about devotion, he knows about strength. He writes for women so incisively, I want to ask him how he knows us, and the battles we fight. He writes for men who struggle, and who work hard, and who used to believe in something but aren’t sure anymore. He writes people in a way that I have not seen since Tennessee Williams.

In the introduction to one of his plays, he says he writes for “grown-ups wrestling with the old ‘why are we alive?” He goes on to say, “Very rarely do husbands say to their wives, ‘Let’s go see a play tonight, and try to figure out why we’re alive.’ but believe it, that’s what’s going on, every time.”

And he comes with us as we puzzle it out. Sitting in the audience of Sins of the Mother will transform you: you are given a window into the everyday-turned-operatic; and the whole time, you can feel the playwright nudging you, turning his mischievous eyes on you, and saying “how about this, huh?” and making you laugh when you shouldn’t.
There is nothing so human as getting the giggles at a funeral. Nothing so mortifying, nothing so hilarious, and nothing to remind you as forcibly that you ARE ALIVE, by God, and it’s wonderful.

Sins of the Mother can probably be classified along with Israel Horovitz’ “Blue Collar Plays”, wherein he documents a moment in time in Gloucester, Mass., and gives us a view of a world and a way of life that is rapidly disappearing. He says, “The characters of these plays will be quick to show you how they have responded, to let you know how they feel about a world that has begun to exclude them.” but they represent all of us. He also said, “I thought if I could focus my particular telescope/microscope, and get it right, really right, for one small New England town, I might possibly have it right for the world.” and he does.

I loved these people; they made me laugh by shining some light on how ridiculous we are, sometimes, we human beings. They made me ache with the pain of the past they carry around and are still fighting, they made me cry. But there’s always that humor, and that redeeming joy that Israel sets dancing through his work, like a silver thread: he never gives way to complete despair, and because of that, I walked out of that theater feeling like my spirit had undergone a chiropractic session; and for that, I thank him.

Now. To the specifics. The set, by Jill Carter, is wonderful; especially the first act set. The backdrop painting is worth the ticket price alone, I’d pay to go to a museum to see that. It moves. It has lovely texture and color, and it is full of questioning, it’s full of “I won’t give up.” I’d hang it in my study.
It serves as a searing reminder to us, along with the fog horn, of what is outside…what these people’s day-to-day existence is like. They are fighting against hopelessness, and in their own ways, they are winning. The anger they are ignoring is like another character in this play: the past they keep saying is dead, is so alive we can hear it breathing. The typical accumulated texture of day-to-day life is on the walls; we don’t ordinarily notice it, but here it’s made extraordinary: a perfect visual metaphor for this play. A normal, small town, a normal day, the mundane that is lit in such a way that it becomes fantastic, sublime. These are small-town battles made enormous; it’s several tragedies on the scale of the Greeks, only it’s also a laugh at small-town life, on the scale of Oscar Wilde with some Thornton Wilder thrown in.

“…bucket of fish heads on her front steps…”

My only confusion about this play is something I am not sure I want cleared up. I have been puzzling about it for a day and a half now, and I think I’d rather have the enjoyment of thinking about it, than have everything finished off with a neat little bow. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

The play opens with wonderful energy. Straight off, the tone is set that will keep on throughout: the playwright and the director and the actors are one step ahead of us with a mystery, and as soon as we go “Oh!” and get part of it, they’re already showing us a hint of something else to figure out. If you like murder mysteries, you are going to love this.

Every now and then, Horovitz gives us a glimpse of something that one of the characters doesn’t see; so, like Alfred Hitchcock showing us the bomb under the rug, we are left with the suspense of watching them figure it out, and wondering how they’ll react. By “them,” I mean: the character of Douggie in the first act, and the character of Philly in the second act. They are the two who have things to find out. We are shown the answer, if we can catch it, but there are other things for us to discover right along with them. Shocking things.

“half the job…”

the most shocking reveal of all is done in a really wonderful way. It doesn’t dawn on us until the characters react…and you’ve got to just take a moment to marvel at the genius of it.

“what did you do, Bobbie? What did you do?”

Actor Scott C. Brown does a Broadway-worthy turn here, playing the role of Bobbie. He inhabits his character, and trusts us to “get it”, which is something I really appreciate. He is simply living in the skin of Bobbie, which gives his performance wonderful texture and grit. His comedic timing is impeccable. There was one moment where he slipped dangerously close to self-pity, not sharing his experience, however: “…no love in my life.” I would urge caution. It’s a very fine line to walk, letting yourself as an actor go through the struggle, and also sharing it with the audience. The man is not, by far, very loveable; and yet, you just can’t help but love him. The pitfall would have been to make this character so violent and mean we could not approach him; it is vital that the audience be able to care, and the success of this play really hinges on whether he can be a voice for us, at times. He is. He can.

As a sort of side note, there is only one line in this entire play that seemed unnecessary. Bobbie says “she liked you too, when you were little,”
And we get it. It’s brilliant and hilarious…the rest , “later on, she didn’t. You know that.” was a let down. We know! Trust us to get it.

Actor Zachariah Robinson, who played the role of Douggie, was too theatrical for me in the first half. He has the difficult task of being the nervous stranger, of being (in a way) new to this group of old friends, but the actor himself should just know that and live it. For instance, before the lines mentioned “perfect storm”, he looked at his watch. But why did he look at it? It was very clear from where I was sitting that he didn’t really check what time it was. He went through the motion, to show us he was looking. I want him to have the thought “what the hell time is it?“ and then actually look to find out. He was too technical, which simply doesn’t fly in an intimate setting; he was watching himself, when the style of the play demands that he work from the inside out. I am positive he’s capable of it, as he eased into it a bit in act Two. In fact, I thought he was utterly convincing and charming in act II. It was like when he was given something to DO, he finally started living his character. He’s perfectly cast; he just needs to trust that.

“the past is of very little use…”

Brian Claudio Smith, who plays two characters (twins), Frankie and Philly, turns in the best work I have seen from him yet. It is funny; I have always wanted to see him really let go, and allow himself to shed the “acting” , and become vulnerable. He does it here: in a performance that deserves some kind of award–but the irony is, he’s got frickin’ sunglasses on when he is finally able to take one step further as an actor and do something REALLY brave. I have only seen a few actors do this, in my lifetime, with simplicity and honesty—so I am not talking about something that makes or breaks an actor; I am talking about something I thought Claudio Smith might be capable of, and sure enough, he is. Incidentally, Ethan Hawke will be playing this role next. To that I will say: you’d get a better price for this young, on-his-way-places, new guy: Brian is perfection in these roles. His entrance brought a bit of theatricality to the stage, and I had settled back into my seat ready for the type of work he turned in before, which was professional, smooth, and “acted”. In fact, this time I was very pleasantly surprised. When the line “I knew everybody, first name basis” was spoken, Brian almost visibly settled in. took a bite of a bagel, and dropped in to his character. I nearly stood up and applauded. Fine work! Don’t read this and try to do anything. That’s the point: don’t “do” anything at all, just live it, listen, and let it land, and give us the permission to think and to go with you as you work things out.

Which brings me to David Nail, who played Dubbah. This chap is a fine example of what acting should be. He’s living in his character, who is a fully rounded, flawed, textured human being, and we are drawn to him. We love him. We, in fact, cannot get enough of this guy. He is working with the ensemble, he’s listening, he’s not thinking of his performance as HIS performance: it is clear he’s doing all the things that actors are taught to do: he’s driving the story by knowing what his character wants, and focusing on his scene partners. But he’s doing so much more than that. By being such a strong and supportive part of an ensemble, this fine actor gives us, the audience, the gift of trusting us. Whereas the more theatrical performances feel like they don’t trust the audience to see things, like they need to “show” us what they want us to see, David Nail and Scott C. Brown in particular are the ones who let us notice the small things. The tiny wince as he lifts his leg up onto the stool. The glance out the doorway. These are not things they may even know they are doing, consciously, because they are just living it. And it’s absolutely sublime. Dubbah had his back to me, completely, when he began the line “we were lobstering off…” and it was hilarious. How can an actor act with his back? That’s the secret: he doesn’t “act”. Just be in your awful, tragic, ridiculous and grotesque situation, and we will get it. Dubbah is really torn apart in the second half, and it’s a masterpiece of subtlety the way this actor just lets that be what is going on, and doesn’t force it in our faces. Very powerful stuff.

“we knew who we were, and why we got up in the morning…”

That’s really what makes this experience something unforgettable: they trust the audience. They let us figure it out. Scot Whitney has a gift in that way, I’ve noted it in his productions before. He puts subtle things in, ideas, moments, and you can catch them if you’re watching and you’re thinking. Even with tragedies, there’s a joy there, like a kid just bubbling over with excitement to share this wonderful thing with us. He is a perfect fit as a director for Israel Horovitz’ work. I hope this is a partnership that will happen again, and I hope I’m able to come and see it happen. Things rarely fall together so perfectly as they did in this production.

“you got out, Phil. You were lucky.”

Now to my only confusion: what is the central mystery, here? There are several, and one of them, the illness which I thought was going to be the central theme, faded away. But I don’t think I want that mystery cleared up : what I’m getting from this now is that the quiet and insidious way that particular illness kills serves as a perfect vehicle and symbol for the real illness that possesses each of these characters: their regret. And so perhaps it doesn’t need to be talked about again. It is the catalyst, and it is still present at the end.

“those demons are, now and forevermore, at peace.”

The characters who never appear, the women, are present in that their struggles and sorrows find tragic resonance in the lives of their lovers, their sons, their husbands. Mr. Horovitz explores the tricky thing that is responsibility: anger for someone else’s pain, regret that they sat by and let it happen, wonder at their strength, violence born when the first woman was silent. It’s really a play about fathers and sons; and yet it’s also tangled up with the women. You simply can’t unravel one edge of it and say “this is the beginning”, and that’s a puzzle to me. And I quite like that.

In closing I must talk about the writing itself. Israel Horovitz is not merely a playwright, he’s a wordsmith. He puts sounds and meaning together in such a way that we can get sheer enjoyment from the words themselves. The tempo of the words are so beautifully real, it made me want to weep. They don’t always finish sentences- he shines a loving light on the way we really talk. There is an argument in act I that peaks, with nearly overlapping words, and then there’s a silence, and a fog horn…it’s like going to the ballet.
Nice job on sound, Gina Salerno! The foghorn is a perfect counterpoint to the action, and serves as a constant reminder of what is outside: these men, used to getting up early to work on boats, with no work any more they still get up early, and they carry their past with them. And outside the door of the unemployment office is the sea, their livelihood and, later, their accomplice.

“Let them go.”

Finally: a word about the ending. Dear Mr. Horovitz, if you change this ending, I will find you, and I will send you stale marshmallow Peeps until your mailbox is full of them. It allows us in, we are there at the end; we’ve come on this journey and now we are in the small town, we ARE the small town. Only the difference is, we’re sitting there knowing the inside story that the townspeople will never know. And it makes us giggle, and then, with the last three words of the play, I found myself shaking, with tears on my face. It leaves us with something, lets us walk home with a candle against the dark. It changes us. Please don’t change it.

Published on February 18, 2009 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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