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Mother's Little Helper

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lenora Champagne is facing difficulties in raising her daughter that her own mother never had to dream of; in the world after September 11, 2001, is childhood innocence really a thing of the past? Champagne, in her one-woman show Mother's Little Helper, examines the many facets of this question as she delves into her own history to better prepare herself for helping her daughter grow up.

The title of her play, now at the Ohio Theatre, is taken from a church booklet Champagne's mother used to explain sex and relationships: "Mother's Little Helper: Twelve Heart to Heart Talks of a Mother and Her Daughter on the Facts of Life." But in the media-saturated world of today, such methods are no longer adequate for detailing the complexities of relationships and life, so other ways must be found.

At the very least, that's what Champagne appears to be arguing. She spends much of her time behind a counter ostensibly chopping potatoes (which double as most of the props she uses), as if in a parody of the type of mother that dominated 1950s television, and would be likely to give her daughter a booklet like the one she received.

But she doesn't maintain that posture - or that attitude - for long. When she steps out from behind the counter to address the audience directly, she has no qualms about being confrontational. Whether standing on a makeshift soapbox (actually a potato crate) to deliver harangues about American conservatives, or present scenes from her upbringing in the Louisiana bayou, she's determined to engage the audience and draw them into her own personal struggle.

Champagne is at her best when she's relating stories about how she and her daughter have dealt with weighty issues, from poverty to religion, and tying them into her overall theme about innocence (or the lack thereof) in a world where the World Trade Center towers no longer stand. Her method of soothing her daughter's troubled nerves on September 11 was to buy her ice cream. After all, she insists, it always works.

Mother's Little Helper, as a whole, works only intermittently. Champagne is a sharp and astute writer, but her performance has a somewhat musty, almost disinterested air about it. While some of this may be due to the direction (Robert Lyons has some excellent staging ideas, but could kick up the pace more than a little), her usually unwavering vocal tones and low energy don't do much to suggest Champagne is a performer of unique charisma or persuasive ability.

But whether Champagne needs - or wants - to be persuasive here is perhaps beside the point. As the "Mother's Little Helper" booklet provided one point of view on the raising of children for its time, so is she providing another for hers. Whether you agree with that point of view or not, Mother's Little Helper is an instructive demonstration that manages to be interesting even though it never completely gets off the ground.

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Soho Think Tank
Mother's Little Helper
Through February 22
Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission
Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, between Spring and Broome
Schedule and Tickets: 212-868-4444