Monster mothers have been a staple of dramatic literature since the Greeks named her “Medea.” Reflecting on the damage done to children by compulsively needy, self-serving mothers in more modern plays as “The Silver Cord” by Sidney Howard, “Gypsy” by Arthur Laurents, and “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, we glimpse only a tip of the matriarchal iceberg.
Whereas the above are somewhat remote biographical and fictional examples of motherhood gone off the rails, the central character who presides over Rob Urbinati’s new and gripping play “Mama’s Boy” is perhaps the most insightful portrait of manipulative motherhood in recent times.
Marguerite Oswald is the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, the young man accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Urbinati’s play provides us with his speculations (based on reports) about the love-hate relationship between Marguerite and her youngest son, Lee. As played by a brilliant Betsy Aidem, Marguerite is a relentless dynamo, the proverbial steel magnolia. Through two absorbing acts, she is a feverishly motivated woman with a mission.
That mission begins right after Lee’s murder soon after his arrest. The play opens as Marguerite, carrying a large briefcase, appears before an audience in Town Hall, New York City, where she feels compelled to present a compassionate portrait of her son. This also shows Marguerite’s own speculations (what she calls evidence) that will implicate the United States government and the FBI in the assassination.
While the play is framed by Marguerite’s impassioned address to the audience (us) with questions supplied by an unseen interviewer (Boyd Gaines), the remainder of Act I regresses to 1962 and Fort Worth, Texas, where Lee (Michael Goldsmith) has just returned from the Soviet Union, where he lived from 1959 to 1962 with his wife, Marina (Laurel Casillo), and their infant child.
Marguerite is not openly hostile toward the pretty red-haired Marina, but her brittle comments and barely concealed condescension indicates her disapproving attitude toward this woman whom she perceives instantly as a rival for her son’s affection. It’s easy for us to see how conflicted a son Lee is, as bits of exposition provide us with the reasons why Marguerite’s other two sons, the married Robert (Miles G. Jackson) and John (unseen), are now estranged.
It quickly becomes apparent why Robert has stayed away from his mother (“I hate her”) but very cautiously pays a visit to her home in an attempt to reconnect with the brother whose actions have mystified him. We learn that Lee’s two older brothers were sent to an orphanage soon after their father had died, while Lee, the youngest, was kept at home and, as we are told, slept in the same bed with his mother. In a brief scene in which Marguerite asks Lee to dance with her, we can see the how Lee is tortured by long repressed feelings that Marguerite quite deviously has instigated.
The play, under David Saint’s skillful direction, intensifies and builds incrementally as Lee unwittingly begins to respond more desperately and despairingly to his mother’s interfering and influencing. He has also found himself once again in a country he claims to hate now even more than he does the Soviet Union.
Unsettled and more embittered by his own life and oddly angered by Marina’s gradual adjustment even after they have found a place of their own, Lee becomes abusive. Not surprising that Marguerite tracks them down and keeps meddling in their affairs. At almost every turn of events, we get to hear about the sacrifices she made for her boys and how she cannot understand their ingratitude.
Aidem, who has appeared notably at George Street in “God of Carnage” and “Jolson Sings Again,” reveals Marguerite as a complicated mother who is not a quitter but is able to valiantly withstand what she sees as unjustified resentment. She does the almost impossible by making us empathize with this woman who will neither admit defeat to anyone nor permit herself to desert the sons who have disowned her.
Goldsmith is terrific as the conflicted Lee whose inner demons will never allow him to completely sever the tormenting love he feels for his mother nor will they allow him to address the guilt he feels for his increasingly brutish behavior to Marina. The play also follows the path that Marina takes from being an outsider in a strange land to a woman suddenly forced to face a tragic reality. Jackson is more than credible as the easy-going Robert, who finds himself unwittingly drawn back into the quagmire created by his mother and his disillusioned and desolate brother.
The play has been given a visually impressive production. Its numerous locations, including a home, apartment, motel, police and court buildings, New York’s Town Hall, and a cemetery, have been masterfully designed by Michael Anania to come into view on a revolving stage. With the added enhancement of locale-specific projections designed by Michael Clark and the excellent lighting design by Ken Billington, “Mama’s Boy” achieves its goal to be both a provocative study in familial disharmony and a startling consideration of domestic events behind a national tragedy.
Mama’s Boy, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through November 6, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., matinees, Thursdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. $17 to $66. 732-246-7717 or GSPonline.org.