Regional Reviews: St. Louis
It may well be that Lee Harvey Oswald shot the wrong person. In Rob Urbinati's 2015 play, the JFK assassin's biggest problem is his own mother. Talented director Brad Schwartz retells this devastating chapter in American history at the .Zack Theatre, just north of St. Louis University, for Tesseract Theatre.
It's a rich, complex piece, emotionally; and as a two-hour drama, it all hangs together perfectly. Donna Parrone plays Marguerite Oswald with big, bright red hair, and pertly bulldozes her family with a belittling sense of "the right way to do everything" in the early 1960s. Driven away by her constant interference, her sons hold Thanksgiving Day dinners in secret in Fort Worth, Texas, so she can't ruin them anymore. But time and again, she tracks them down.
I hate to say Ms. Parrone's is a "towering performance," because it creeps up on you, the insanity of it, through a gracious kind of wickedness, and the occasional, unexpectedly barked command. For the most part, she looks almost normal from a distance. Hers is insanity only in the extreme close-up of a family dynamic. For instance, this is a woman who (in act two) can take a national tragedy and somehow make it about herself (thus verifying the playwright's thesis, that she is more or less to blame). But only in the final scenes do we see Marguerite's primal madness rise up to its full height, in an historical moment when the innocence of the postwar generation was destroyed.
But because Lee Harvey Oswald did not shoot his own mother (as depicted in the play), her own exposure, after the assassination, to a long list of hack writers would have helped to create a new meta-theory for the event: in this retelling, nearly every other conspiracy theory could suddenly be explained away as a clone of Marguerite's own outraged manias, which resemble conspiracy theories themselves. Her tormented manner in the play presages the contamination of history itself. It's a devastating glimpse into a pivotal moment in our past.
As you may have guessed, Mama's Boy also has a lot of "Mommie Dearest" in it. Brandon Atkins is the awkwardly pampered Lee, excellent in his navigation of his relationship with his mother. And the always-insightful and engaging Jeremy Goldmeier is the imploring Robert Oswald. Both have a grudging patience with their mother, a woman who always seems to be wrestling some invisible alligator. And Lee's Russian bride Marina is played with trenchant realism by Carly Uding. She's the "outsider" of the play, receiving American pop-culture like a forced catechism, from her allegedly infallible mother-in-law.
Then there's the one thing that "shouldn't-work-but-really-does," where the production may test the limits of the playwright's vision. This is Mr. Schwartz's addition of a nearly silent chorus of four young women, perfectly choreographed by Tanya Shea, who collectively exist in this production as "shadows" on stage, often representing Marguerite's own personal demons. (In the script, their occasional lines are shouted by reporters, guards, and "everyman" characters, especially after the assassination.) Here, the shadows coil around Oswald's mother, hissing like snakes at the mention of Khrushchev, and at other Cold War-era references. They're a surprising inspiration, but one that gracefully heightens the moods of the time.
Through September 30, 2018, at the .Zack Theatre, 3224 Locust Street, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.tesseracttheatre.org
Shadows: Lydia Aiken, Kathryn Kent, Alexa Moore, Melody Quinn