'Independence' presents a clinical view of one family's disintegration


At first there's a faintly tainted smell. You can pretend not to notice. Then the putrescence becomes just too strong to ignore, but not too strong to endure. Then it begins to fade. There's no dramatic resolution or catharsis. The odor just gets weaker and weaker.

That's the way it is when you have a dead mouse behind a wall.

And that's the way it is, in a manner of speaking, with "Independence," a comedy/drama of family life playing at the Theatre Off Jackson.

Playwright Lee Blessing is a master of the theatricalized case history. He pokes around amid interesting characters and situations. His stories are never sensationally dramatic. But we do keep wondering what will happen next, how things will work out.

Seattle audiences have seen Blessing's "A Walk in the Woods" (diplomats, a Russian and an American, edging toward a peace treaty), "Two Rooms" (a hostage in Lebanon), "Down the Road" (journalists interviewing as serial killer) and "Eleemosynary" (grandma, daughter and granddaughter, jousting).

"Independence" showcases mother and three daughters. Mother is crazy in both senses: both odd and deranged. The question is: how crazy? Will she kill Jo? (It was just a push. And every mother hits her children sometimes. Even adult children.) Will she demoralize Kess? ("Are you still homosexual?" mom demands. "Well, don't do anything homosexual while you're here!") Will she drive Sherry into total nihilism? (Sherry, 19, copes by having "meaningless sex" with strangers.)

Director David Hsieh creates a mild, clinical atmosphere in which increasingly pathological phenomena come up for inspection. Hsieh's bland living room setting, and unremarkable lighting by Rick Wong, emphasize a matter-of-fact view of familial dystopia.

The acting is determinedly non-hysterical.

Lisa Marie Nakamura, as the mother, is casual about her homicidal fantasies and gestures, upping the intensity only when control of her daughters starts slipping away. Colleen Parker is perky as the teen cynic, Sherry. Caroline S. Liem, as Jo, keeps edging toward distraught desperation, but she never quite goes over the edge. Kathy Hsieh as Kess, is tightly controlled in voice and gesture, betraying anguish only with an increasingly stricken facial expression.

Glints of humor ward off melodrama. The sisters sometimes contrast the hyper-control of the James Bond mystique with their own passive disarray.

As with a case history (or a decomposing mouse behind a wall), the crisis grows and then fades without the benefit of masterful decisions or a perfect resolution.

The title, by the way, refers to the setting, Independence, Iowa. And, of course it also refers to the action of the play - an intriguing escape from a tainted atmosphere.

July 4, 1997


Independence. By Lee Blessing. A ReAct production at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S. Through Aug 2. Tickets $6-$12, $1 off with canned food donation, pay what you can Sunday and July 13; 206-364-3283.

"Independence" showcases mother and three daughters. Mother is crazy in both senses: both odd and deranged. the question is: how crazy?

Thin plot idea in 'Going to St. Ives' stretched to excruciating tedium


Here's a thought: Hitler had a mother. So did Stalin. So did Pol Pot. So did Idi Amin.
Think about it.

OK, moving right along, here's another thought: One woman believes she has killed her son. She can't forgive herself. Her son was dear and innocent. The woman thinks killing her son, even unintentionally, is the most awful thing imaginable.

Another woman wants to kill her son. Her son is a cruel tyrant, a mass murderer. This second woman can't forgive herself for letting her son live. she thinks killing her son would be the most wonderful thing imaginable.
Think about it.

And there you have it: "Going to St. Ives," a play by Lee Blessing that is receiving its premiere production at A Contemporary Theatre.

Well, there you have it in a way. Except that it took you maybe one minute to read and digest the foregoing concepts. Blessing, however, stretches out his thoughts on motherhood and murder to a seemingly interminable 2 1/2 hours. By the time the last anguished mother anatomizes her final bit of unhappiness, one begins to envy the fate of those dead sons.

Whatever droning woe mommy dearest has to express, the dead sons can't hear it.

Part of the irksomeness of "st. Ives" is inherent in director Leslie Swackhamer's production. Her actresses, Mari Nelson and Gloria Foster, display their very limited dramatic resources within 15 minutes. That leaves 135 minutes of monotonous repetitions.

Nelson plays an English surgeon. Foster plays an African empress. The empress has glaucoma. The surgeon is a renowned eye specialist.

Nelson relies heavily on English stereotype behavior -- lots of inhibition, lots of shock, a bit of sputtering, a bit of diffidence. Foster relies heavily on "people of color" stereotype behavior -- lots of big gestures, lots of earthy humor, a bit of anger, a bit of melancholy.

As the evening wears on, Nelson fades into chirps and spasmodic movements. Foster becomes grandiose. Her final half hour is all sledgehammer vocal mannerisms and opera-conductor arm flailings>

At times it seems as if Swackhamer hasn't directed these two actresses at all. No amount of excess or repetition seems to have been discouraged.

But then Blessing's dialogue in "St. Ives" is not brisk. As it dribbles along, one picks out chunks of prefabricated writing and thinking: "I am a doctor! I preserve life! I don't destroy it!" Or, "He was sick. He was like a little boy. All men are like little boys when they are sick."

Only slightly better are recycled notions in not quite standard formulations. Levity about the Brits and their tea is balefully familiar. When Foster says "Tea is the one essential bodily fluid for the English," it is not quite novel but, still, it is not quite a cliche, either.

The plot in "St. Ives" is no more gripping than the dialogue. the whole story is utterly contrived. Are there no poisons in Africa? If this ophthamological surgeon is so hesitant to provide poison, why not apply to her physician husband? He is after all, the political activist in the family.

As a playwright, Blessing is drawn to moral extremes and political dilemmas. His taste for high-definition concepts has paid off for him in other plays that have been done here in Seattle: "Fortinbras," "Two Rooms," "A Walk in the Woods" and "Eleemmosynary."

In fact, Blessing's characteristic proclivities pay off for him in "Independence," another mother-under-duress play being produced at the Theatre Off Jackson. Anyone who wants to see what Blessing can do would be well advised to chose "Independence" over "St. Ives." Theatre Off Jackson tickets cost about a third of what ACT charges. And "Independence" has three times the power of "St. Ives."

July 10, 1997


Going to St. Ives. By Lee Blessing. A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union. Through Aug 3. Tickets $16.25-$30.50, discounts for students, seniors and groups; 206-292-7676. Sunday and July 13; 206-364-3283.

© 1997 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Reprinted with permission by ReAct.

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