"Mother Play" Review: Jim Parsons Shines in Predictable Plot

Exploring familial themes in Vogel's newest stage work

by Zain ul Abedin
"Mother Play" Review: Jim Parsons Shines in Predictable Plot
© Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

In her latest theatrical offering, "Mother Play," esteemed playwright Paula Vogel, known for her Pulitzer-winning work "How I Learned to Drive," teams up with acclaimed actors Jessica Lange and Celia Keenan-Bolger and the versatile Jim Parsons to weave a narrative that spans decades and explores the tumultuous dynamics of a fractured family.

Set against the backdrop of America's vibrant yet challenging decades from the 1960s onward, the play casts Lange as Phyllis, a mother grappling with the aftermath of a broken marriage marked by betrayal. As the curtain rises in 1964, Phyllis faces the daunting task of raising her children, Carl (played by Parsons) and Martha (played by Keenan-Bolger), in an era steeped in rigid gender norms and societal expectations.

The play's setting, an apartment that doubles as a stage for the unfolding drama, becomes a character in its own right, with director Tina Landau employing imaginative set design and shadow puppetry to portray the family's struggle against poverty and instability.

The subtitle "A Play in Five Evictions" cleverly maps out the narrative structure, marking each displacement with a shift in the family's internal relationships and external circumstances.

Performance and Pitfalls

Parsons delivers a standout performance, utilizing his post- "Big Bang Theory" career to craft a deeply moving portrayal of Carl, whose journey through self-discovery and rebellion adds layers to the familial saga.

His monologue, likening himself to Anastasia Romanov amidst the Russian Revolution, is a highlight, showcasing Parsons' ability to blend humor with poignant emotional depth. Meanwhile, Keenan-Bolger, though in a less flashy role, anchors the play with her performance as the narrator and emotional conduit through which the audience connects with the characters' journeys.

However, the play's predictability and some of Vogel's bolder creative risks don't always land as intended. Lange's solo scene, meant to symbolize Phyllis's deep-seated loneliness and regret, stretches too long, diluting its impact.

Despite this, Lange's portrayal of a woman marginalized by societal changes critically reflects the era's gender dynamics. "Mother Play" might tread familiar ground with its theme of generational misunderstandings and societal upheaval during the 1960s and '70s, but it resonates with its emotional authenticity and the universal call to reexamine familial bonds.

While it may not reach the unexpected narrative heights of "How I Learned to Drive," Vogel's character development and dialogue craftsmanship ensures that "Mother Play" engages the audience, reminding us of the enduring importance of family connections and the complexities of parental relationships.