Asolo Conservatory’s latest play walks the razor’s edge between redemption and self-destruction.
Before discussing Asolo Conservatory’s latest play, let’s get the euphemisms out of the way. The play’s title contains one of George Carlin’s seven dirty words that you can’t say on television. Necessity being the mother of invention, we’ll clip that particular word to “Mother.”
We now return to the subject of “The Mother with the Hat.”
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ snappy dialogue is bursting with all seven of Carlin’s cuss words. If you can dig the trash talk of “The Sopranos,” you’ll dig this. If gutter language gives you a case of the howling fantods, take a pass.
I don’t mean to beat the dead horse of linguistic taboo. In the world of this play, it’s no big thing — and not a gimmick. It’s the way America’s down-and-outers talk, that’s all. And Guirgis has a good ear. His characters’ R-rated bluster is a cover-up, not the point. They’re damaged goods. Verbal toughness hides inner wounds.
Jackie (John Wilson Bennett) is an ex-con on probation who is trying to stay clean and sober and do the 12-step thing. His childhood sweetheart, Veronica (Sara Linares) isn’t clean, sober or faithful. Jackie suspects as much when he spots a man’s hat (the one belonging to “Mother”) in their shabby flat. Jackie goes from zero-to-jealous rage in 60 seconds. He’s paranoid, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Without detailing the precise geometry of the love triangle, it’s a fine mess indeed.
As you might expect, the characters go round and round. Jackie’s AA sponsor, Ralph D (Lawrence James), gets dragged into the fight along with Ralph’s unhappy wife, Victoria (DeAnna Wright), and Julio, (Matthew Kresch), Jackie’s disrespected, but fiercely loyal, gay cousin from Puerto Rico.
Director Celine Rosenthal whips you along on a 90-minute thrill ride. Most of the time, the play’s a laugh-out-loud comedy. But the ride takes a few sharp turns into heartbreak when you least expect it.
It’s a student production, but it never feels like one. Excellent performances all round. Bennett’s Jackie is the emotional heart of the maelstrom: a good man with bad impulse control. Wright’s Victoria is a white-hot flame of need and manipulation. (Addiction concentrates the mind marvelously.) Wright’s Victoria is hurting and hides the reason why. James’ Ralph D talks the talk of loyalty. Kresch’s Julio walks the walk.
There’s no big conclusion, moral or point. Guirgis’ play is fundamentally a character study. Five damaged people in need of redemption. Five damaged people fighting the tidal pull of self-destruction. Against the odds, they survive this crisis with a few more scars. After that, who knows?
One day at a time.