"'night Mother" And "necessary Targets" Come To The Stage
Two plays about women explore the limits of listening.
Thursday, November 7, 2002
Listening Out Loud: Jeanne McCulloch directs Necessary Targets (left); Night Mother examines lives poorly lived (right).
Two plays opening soon on local stages, each written, directed and performed by women, examine troubled female relationships in two very different settings-a Bosnian refugee camp and a kitchen in small-town America.
Each play deals with women who have been through some form of hell-rape, murder, depression, shattered ideals. Although they deal with very different groups of women, the two plays share beautiful writing, carefully-drawn characters, and a sensitive treatment of the same question-can good listening heal wounds?
''Night Mother, Marsha Norman''s 1983 Pulitzer prize-winning drama opening Friday in the SRO theater at Monterey Peninsula College, is the story of the final hour in the life of Jessie Cates, a deeply disappointed young woman who has decided that life is no longer worth living. The play takes place in real time, and is set in the kitchen of the home Jessie shares with her mother Thelma, who spends most of the play trying to persuade her daughter not to shoot herself with her father''s gun.
Although Thelma thinks she''s talking to Jessie, and Jessie thinks she''s explaining herself, both speak in a series of near-monologues, illustrating their tragic inability to engage in real communication.
"These two women never listen to each other," says director Alicia Wharton, a recent MPC drama student returning now to direct her first full-length production. "That, to me, is the biggest theme of the play."
Necessary Targets, a new play by Eve Ensler >(Vagina Monologues) opening Nov. 15 in Carmel''s Circle Theater, is also about women listening to each other, but Ensler''s attitude toward the efficacy of such listening is more equivocal than Norman''s. Very often, Ensler''s play suggests, people listen to others'' troubles in order to satisfy their own needs. Still, even when the motives for a conversation are suspect, listening can have therapeutic value.
Necessary Targets is the story of two American women-J.S., a Park Avenue psychiatrist, and Melissa, a human rights journalist-who travel to a Bosnian refugee camp ostensibly to listen to the stories of five women made homeless by their country''s war. Each thinks her listening will help the Bosnians overcome their traumas, but as the play progresses, the Americans come to realize the limitations of what they are offering.
Ensler wrote Necessary Targets after travelling to Bosnia in 1993 and, like her two protagonists, spending weeks hearing the stories of women refugees-survivors of rape, murder and pillage. "It was their community, their holding on to love, their insane humanity in the face of catastrophe, their staggering refusal to have or seek revenge that fueled me and ultimately moved me to write this play," she writes in her introduction to the script.
This production is produced and directed by Jeanne McCulloch, an actress who moved to Carmel this fall after a year in New York City. She says she chose the play because she, too, visited Yugoslavia, but in 1986, before ethnic wars and NATO bombings destroyed many of the places she remembers fondly.
Necessary Targets would have been, McCulloch says, a completely different play if it were about men. "It''s women who need a voice, especially in that war. So many women were violated, raped. Journalists who covered Bosnia say that even in Lebanon it wasn''t so brutal-they were killing reporters on the steps of City Hall, kidnapping groups of children, gang-raping."
Although it deals with a horrific subject, the play itself is not brutal. "It''s not in-your-face angry," McCulloch says. "Live theater is therapeutic-there''s an exchange of energy between the audience and the actors."
McCulloch was helped in her search for authenticity by a local Bosnian family. Lejla Mavris, 23, and her mother Spomenka Bratovic, refugees from the 1992 bombing of Sarajevo, have attended rehearsals, worked on accents with the actresses, and related their own stories of pre-war life in Bosnia to help the cast recreate that world on stage.
Lejla was spirited out of Bosnia 10 years ago by her mother, and sent to live with her older sister, an exchange student in Kansas. While Spomenka sat out the rest of the war in Croatia, ultimately helping 50 other high-school students flee to the U.S., Lejla''s father remained behind in Sarajevo, where he became trapped for the next two years. In 1994 the family was reunited in Kansas, and in 1997 they moved to Monterey where both parents got jobs at DLI.
Lejla doesn''t think that the play trivializes her country''s tragedy.
"I think it''s a good thing to do a play about it," she says. "It shows that these women are not uneducated, low-life people. One of the characters is a doctor, she opposes the idea of these Americans coming to the camp with, ''Oh, you poor refugees.''"
Necessary Targets is, Lejla points out, "written from an American perspective, for American audiences." And that''s not a bad thing. "Maybe it will help Americans understand what''s happening in Bosnia."
''Night Mother opens Friday at MPC''s SRO Theater (646-4214). Necessary Targets opens Nov. 15 at the Circle Theater in Carmel (625-1388); Lejla Mavris and her parents will hold discussions after some performances.