Last Lists of My Mad Mother Is a Fast, Funny and Therapeutic Examination of a Child-Parent Relationship Tortured by Alzheimer’s Disease

WomensWork Theatre Collaborative opens its 2019/20 season with a touching production of Julie Jensen’s Last Lists of My Mad Mother, the first in a series of three plays chosen to “examine the ways madness manifests itself in women’s lives,” says creative director Lynne Collinson. The season is being mounted at and with the support of the Artists’ Exchange of Cranston.

If you haven’t yet been introduced to WomensWork, now is the time to pay attention. This collaborative of veteran artists has banded together with the mission to produce women-centered productions. WomensWork is determined to offer roles and opportunities for women over 40, a theatrical demographic vastly underrepresented in the theatrical lexicon, with a focus on “stories of merit, simply staged, rooted in strong acting with a sharp focus on material and message.”

Last Lists of My Mad Mother makes an excellent start to the season. Telling the story of a mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s and her two daughters, playwright Julie Jensen describes it as a drama with humor. But let the emotionally vulnerable among us not be deterred. It’s the funniest therapeutic 50 minutes you could ask for, thanks to a very talented cast. 

Ma cares about ribbons and bows, intransitive verbs and keeping to her rigid schedule. Dot uses a wicked sense of humor to sort out the tangle of her mother’s mind. Together they struggle with Ma’s inevitable decline, while Sis phones in her advice from afar. In and out of the sinewy webs of Ma’s fleeting awareness, retracing paths they have traveled countless times, Ma and Dot drive toward understanding and arrive with some sense of surprise at the destination of comfort. Commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum, this play was a winner of the Mill Mountain Theatre New Play Competition.

Margaret Melozzi is sublime as Dot. Sustaining the undefeatable wit of Dot’s character, Ms. Melozzi beautifully navigates the limits of patience, humor and compassion. Her performance is thoughtful and stirring. Paula Faber, whose portrayal of Ma is excellent, matches her in equal measure. Ms. Faber strikes a delicate balance between the former schoolteacher’s critical nature and her inescapable childlike vulnerability. Their performance is subtle and moving. 

Carol Schlink further enhances the production as Sis, the absent sister. While the role is a supporting one, it is vital to the production. Ms. Schlink was impenetrable as she sat to the side of each scene, observing the action and remaining on stage as a reminder of her absence from the work of supporting their mother. 

The choice to keep Sis on stage for the production was a subtle and effective move by director Lynne Collinson. Sis, like the audience, is bearing witness to the struggle shared by Dot and Ma as they navigate the chaos of their strained relationship. The work of bearing witness is implicit in the role of women. It is women’s work.

The consistent production choices made in Last Lists of My Mad Mother were minimal in keeping with WomensWork’s aim for streamlined, story-focused staging. Mad Mother was performed in the Artists’ Exchange small black box space with minimal set, using only the necessary table, chairs and few hand props to enhance the storytelling. 

While this play is well suited for bare-bones production style, there was one moment that might have been elevated by the addition of music or a sound cue. Ma “dances” through traffic and the anxiety is palpable. The acting in this scene is exquisite. The simple lighting cues are clever and very effective. Dot yells to her mother over the traffic, but there is no other sound in the theater. The building tension, the tone of the scene, the yelling of the worried daughter, the fractured dancing of the mother all would have benefited from the addition of a sound cue. It could offer something upon which to stabilize the pacing of the delicate scene and unify the separately beautiful elements. 

That being said, Last Lists of My Mad Mother is a tight and touching One Act that will not disappoint. While the subject matter is bound to be emotional and, for some, difficult, the act of bearing witness is cathartic. Next door to the Artists’ Exchange is Italian comfort food at Bettolas — some bread and pasta would be well deserved after this heart wrenching and magnificent production. Last Lists offers humor, depth and healing in a compact production. 

WomensWork Theatre Collaborative presents Last Lists of My Mad Mother through Nov 3 at The Artists Exchange 50 Rolfe Street, Cranston. Tickets can be purchased online at artists-exchange.org  

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