The mother from Hell has long been a staple of world theater — from Greek tragedy’s Medea to Broadway’s Momma Rose (in “Gypsy”). But sometimes it’s the mother residing in that more familiar place — the one we might call familial purgatory — who makes life a real trial for those around her. With that, I sincerely hope that playwright Sharyn Rothstein’s self-ascribed dramedy is autobiographical only in the sense that it deals with the attempt by a desperate daughter to blast free from her mother’s debilitating orbit.
Actually Ruth, as played by a very convincing Carolyn Aaron, isn’t all that terrible a person, at least she isn’t underneath the often lacerating barbs that initially define her. It’s the almost constant torrent from Ruth’s mouth that fuels the joke-driven “All the Days,” now having its world premiere at McCarter Theater.
If Ruth is apt to find fault and call out the presumed flaws and failures of family members and all others she encounters, her 38-year-old daughter Miranda (played a by-nerves-rattled Stephanie Janssen) may be the biggest cross for her to bear. Never mind that she is converting to Christianity even as her son Jared (a very fine young Matthew Kuenne) is preparing for his bar mitzvah. “It’s only a phase,” is the oft-used reaction to Miranda from Ruth’s sister Monica (Leslie Ayvazian, best remembered for her one-woman show “Nine Armenians” and here a standout with the one-liners).
This episodic play opens in Ruth’s Long Island kitchen, where Miranda has come to be supportive and to invite Ruth to come back to Philadelphia with her for the upcoming bar mitzvah. Though the family is as expert at embracing guilt and remorse as they are at begrudgingly acknowledging their inseparable family ties, it remains to be seen if the ties that bind will also tear them apart as they are reunited following the recent sudden death of Ruth’s son David.
Bravo to designer Daniel Ostling for the setting that cleverly expands from Ruth’s small kitchen into the interior of Miranda’s home. In no time flat, Miranda’s patient-to-a-fault boyfriend Stewbert (Justin Hagan) has arranged a blind date for the 60-year-old, overweight, diabetic, self-deprecating Ruth with his best friend Baptiste (Raphael Nash Thompson), a suave and good-looking herbalist who also happens to be black.
Romance isn’t exactly what Ruth was expecting but all things are possible within the utterly capricious and ultimately implausible situations that arise with each rise and fall of the curtain. The plot congeals or rather coagulates with the arrival Ruth’s estranged ex-husband Del (the always terrific Ron Orbach), an unpredictable personality, or to quote Ruth “a deadbeat.”
Our empathy for Ruth increases fitfully as the jokes and the bickering and belittling are replaced with the reasons for the failure of her marriage and with more about David’s death. But real feelings emerge just a little too late to make up for the preceding superficial banter.
Under Emily Mann’s sit-com-paced direction the actors are commendable interpreters of Rothstein’s characters, all of whom are eventually decreed to be reasonably humanized. The play’s title is terrible as it doesn’t tell us much or even mean very much. Perhaps “You Shouldn’t Know From Such a Mother” would have worked better, but that might have prompted me to say that you shouldn’t know from such a play.
Rothstein’s previous play “By the Water” was a commendable kitchen sink drama with real people, not stick figures. “All the Days” takes a disconcerting detour in style by substituting stock characters for otherwise potentially real people. There is a strong and pervading feeling throughout the play that we are the audience at a live taping of a TV sit-com. At two and a half hours including intermission, “All the Days” takes quite a bit of patience to find out if Ruth really has it right that “optimism is a form of mental disorder.”
All the Days, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, May 29, Tuesdays through Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $25 to $94.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.
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