Review of MoonSong at Yale Cabaret
MoonSong, written by Sean Patrick Higgins, an actor in the Yale Drama School, and co-directed by Higgins and Libby Peterson, a theater manager, could be considered a play about illness, though what it’s really about is one woman’s unbreakable spirit. “Mom” is based on Higgins’ own mother and is played by her daughter Mary Higgins, and what she manifests, from her opening, ice-breaking pre-song patter as an entertainer, to her struggles with the well-meaning adult son who is trying to break her of bad, health-deteriorating and money-wasting habits, is centered self-awareness and an offbeat sense of humor. Indeed, Higgins’ play shows how humor, as much as love and good intentions, is key to weathering difficult circumstances.
Mom faces many trials in this very compressed play: her condition of multiple sclerosis, a first husband jailed, a second husband who dies well before she would have expected, and children who, like the free spirits she has taught them to be, tend to prefer make believe to unpleasant realities.
Mom is a singer, and from time to time breaks into song. She also prays the Act of Contrition with a believer’s sense that the trials she endures, like her blessings—eyesight!—have come from God. Higgins and his collaborators are to be commended for creating such a direct and charming character, letting her address us in her own voice. In fact, her monologue—interrupted at times by Son (Jonathan Higginbotham) and his games or his tantrums or his tattling on his brothers or sister—is, for most of the play, the show’s main virtue. Interaction with other characters doesn’t fully come into its own until Son is off to college. Particularly effective is her vigil at the dying bedside of her husband Phil while speaking to Son on the phone. We see there, and again and again, how her basic mode is to think of others. Though she tells us, the audience, about her fears and frailty, she hides it from her children as much as she can, and stays “in character” as the mother they need. She keeps it light.
Late in the play, that role starts to fray. We see how hard it has become to maintain her even tone of kind affability. Her son takes her to task for smoking, for giving away money, for buying snacks for a neighbor’s dog. We might think her mind is starting to go, but in the give and take between Son and Mom, Higgins gets at the tension—call it pride, call it independence—that keeps a mother, in her 50s, from willingly and easily becoming her child’s child. Mom has her reasons, she has her wants and needs, most of which she has ignored and let go in her long, hard life. There’s a little bit of Lear’s “O reason not the need!” in her defiance, and our sense of her character grows as a result.
Though there could be more interest provided by the enactment, with more actors, of the other characters in this family of five, and while Son seems not to develop much, there are other assets to the evening: Mary Higgins’ clear and simple singing voice, and her effective way of acting out physical impairment without dwelling on it; moments of dance or rhythmic movement that, at the show’s opening, set a tone of “interpretation.” We know we aren’t getting a play with conventional scenic development. There are huge leaps in time, gaps in what is happening, and the bursts of choreography tell us things in a non-narrative manner. There are also projected backdrops in Izmir Ickbal's moonlike set, and sound effects: the image of rain patterning a giant moon works into the play almost as a sign from God, letting us for a moment glimpse the benign universe that, for all her Job-like troubles, Mom still lives in.
Beyond the question of what keeps this woman’s spirits up and makes her such a loving and dedicated mother to her “pups”—at one point she claims “I’m a lioness and these are my cubs”—there’s the question of how we, as a culture, treat and judge the ill. In Mom’s view, God’s plan is present even in suffering, but, socially, we tend to see the ill as victims of bad judgments or tough luck. In MoonSong, hearing and seeing how those afflicted cope with a life that, for many, is already hard enough, is certainly inspiring, but it should also be a goad to look for ways to help those who need the help.
A sensitive portrait of a rare spirit, MoonSong makes a strong case for the bonds of family and the heroism of living for each day’s blessing.
By Sean Patrick Higgins
Co-directed by Sean Patrick Higgins and Libby Peterson
Stage Manager: Rebekah Heusel; Set Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Designer: Erin E. Fleming; Sound Designer: Ian Williams; Associate Sound Designer: Matthew Fischer; Projections Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Choreographer: Dan Higgins; Technical Director: Kelly Fayton; Dramaturg: Catherine Maria Rodriguez; Producer: Chiara Klein
October 15-17, 2015