Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Olympia Dukakis is One Hell of A Mother

Also see Richard's review of 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera

Louis Zorich and
Olympia Dukakis

American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere comedy A Mother, written by noted playwright Constance Congdon. The playwright has adapted the comedy from Maxim Gorky's Vassa Zheleznova, and Olympia Dukakis plays the penny-pitching mother who is more interested in business than her children.

Olympia Dukakis was in London several years ago when she heard a radio play version of the Gorky piece on BBC. She decided this would be an interesting project for ACT. However, it would need to be rewritten since the radio play was "too British." Also, she discovered the Gorky piece was very opaque with just too much going on in this dysfunctional Russian family.

Congdon got involved and all decided they would do an adaptation to fit the American audience. There were three workshops, each with a different version of the play. ACT is presenting the final version on the Geary stage. There have been many plays of American dysfunctional families (e.g., Long Day's Journey into Night) but this Russian family takes the cake. This is the "mother" of dysfunctional family life.

A Mother is the ultimate black comedy with very clever and crisp dialogue. It's Neil Simon with a Chekhov background. The playwright has retained a certain British feel about the two-act comedy. She establishes the characters solidly in the first two scenes. They are relativity slow so you can get to know the family; then the play picks up speed and becomes a very fast paced farce that is hilarious. The production is also graced with a charismatic cast headed Ms. Dukakis, who provides an unsentimental characterization as the mother.

A Mother takes place in 1909 in a small provincial town on the Volga. Vassa Petrovna Zheleznova (Olympia Dukakis) is the wife of Zakhar (never seen) who owns a tile and peat factory. The husband is lying upstairs gravely ill. Vassa heads one very anomalous family of two sons and one daughter. Russian law requires that if the husband dies, the sons inherit the business. Vassa, who is a very strong businesswoman, knows that if these sons take over the business, it will be ruined in a matter of months. What's a mother to do? Well, she can forge a will with her loyal factory manager Mikhail Vassilyev (Louis Zorich) stating she will inherit the tile and peat factory. The grown up children are gathering greedily downstairs to claim their piece of the family "fortune."

Vassa's family consists of physically handicapped, self-pitying Pavel (John Keating), the oldest son who whines thoughout the whole play. He is the most paranoid character one can find on the stage. This character is somehow married to the beautiful but scatterbrained Liudmila (Rene Augesen), Mikhail's daughter. Liudmila can't stand the sight of her husband and she makes that known to everyone. Poor Pavel is so in love that it hurts to see him being constantly rejected by his wife. To make matters worse, Liudmila has had a sexual liaison with urbane and worldly opera-singing Prokhor (Tom Mardirosian) and every one knows it. Poor Pavel, it's enough to drive him to a monastery where he will be hidden from the world.

Vassa has a second son, an insatiable buffoon who is so obese that he cannot fit into his clothes any longer, and, as Prokhor says, he is a "stupido." He has married an even more gluttonous, buxom woman who is more stupid. As the uncle says, these two will produce an army of "studipos." Vassa's daughter Anna (Marcia Pizzo), who was kicked out of the house earlier because she married a drunken army officer, has come back home because she has left the "drunken swine." She is a very smart wheeler dealer who wants money to support herself and her two sons. She knows how to play the angles to get financial independence from her husband.

The production has all of the ingredients to make a wonderful Russian farce, with a forged will, blackmail, adultery and that old standby, greed. Director Perloff says, and I agree, that "the tone of the play is uniquely Gorky, biting, bitterly funny and heartbreakingly true." The play is also typical since it reflects today's moral code.

Olympia Dukakis is wonderful as the stern and penny-pitching mother. Her idea of motherly love is to give the children food and a roof over their heads. This is no Hallmark card mother. Ms. Dukakis had some problems with lines on opening night but gave a ferociously funny performance in the second act. She is brilliant as the unscrupulous mother willing to risk everything to retain the business.

John Keating (Roundabout production of Juno and the Paycock, nine productions at the Irish Rep Off Broadway) is uproarious as a physically handicapped, demented, ugly young man. It's not really politically correct to laugh at this type of person but you just can't help yourself since his whining is so farcical.

Marcia Pizzo (Marin Shakespeare Company actress) is compelling as the conniving Anna. Looking like a young Katherine Hepburn, she dominates the stage with her mannerisms. Rene Augusen (ACT core player) is properly flighty as Liudmila. She plays the role like a cunning little vixen.

Reg Rogers (New York actor, Can Can at the Encore and OBIE and Lucille Lortel award winner for Hurrah at Last and The Dazzle at the Roundabout), Vassa's youngest son, and Margaret Schenck (Time of Your Life at ACT) as his wife Natalya (both are pictured at left) are a happy and hilarious couple straight out of a Dickens play. Rogers is delightfully entertaining as he searches for food everywhere, with Schenck a perfect food eating mate. They are perfect buffoons.

Tom Mardirosian (New York actor, a regular on the TV series Oz plus many Broadway roles including My Favorite Year) plays the bombastic Uncle Prokhor in the showiest role. Uncle Prokhor is pretentious and full of himself, occasionally breaking out with an Italian opera aria. Mardirosian gives a great, flamboyant performance with an eye for the ladies.

Louis Zorich (Broadway actor and real life husband of Dukakis) plays the factory manager and co-conspirator Mikhail. He gives a smooth performance in several of his scenes. Rounding out this great farce is Jeri Lynn Cohen (Okra and charter member of the Word for Word company). She is pleasing as the snoopy, religious, masochistic maid Lipa who is completely bewildered at what is going on with the family.

Ralph Funicello's set of an upscale Russian sitting room is outstanding. The furnishings are strictly Russian with a huge samovar sitting stage right. There are heavy wooden doors along with tall concrete pillars. A large, heavy wooden door in back center is very effective for characters to arrive from the outside. Wild Russian music is played effectively with scene changes. Carey Perloff has done a magnificent job on this farce.

A Mother plays through June 13 at the Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-749-2228 or on the ACT web site at

Their next production is the world premiere production of Eve Ensler's The Good Body, written and performed by the creator of The Vagina Monologues.

Photos: Ken Friedman

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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