“Surviving Mama” has a work in progress feel to it.
The structure is at times confusing and it touches on story points that go undeveloped.
As the play opens an elderly woman, Marlena, (Arva Rose) is awakened by a fire on her stove that she hastily puts out.
Next, her two daughters, Francine (Gina Manziello) and Stella (Sharon Rosner) squabble about their mother’s inability to care for herself. A familiar story is falling into place.
The mother is not ready to give up her independence and she adamantly states that no one tells her what to do, not the Nazi, not the bank and not Papa.
Here we flashback to a confrontation between the young Marlena (played by Gina Manziello) and her father that reminded me of Henry James’ “Washington Square.”
The father (Jerry Lacy) disparages Marlena’s penniless boyfriend, saying that he is only after her money. He belittles her, “Look in the mirror, you’re no Dietrich.”
When she defies her father, he slaps her and tells her to get out. She screams that she will never see his grandchildren.
Apparently they don’t reconcile as this is Marlena’s only scene with her father.
What follows is a retelling of the early Nazi persecution of the Jews that lacks a unique personal point of view. If you have read about the era, watched the TV and movie dramatizations you will already know the facts.
Marlena persuaded her husband, Gustav, to go to Cuba and now she knows it is time to leave with her three daughters.
When she tries to persuade her mother to go with her, she refuses because Berlin is the most cultivated city in the world and she is too old to leave.
She tells her daughter that Gustav in distant Cuba will forget he has a wife.
Marlena sets out with Anna and the two younger off stage children to get exit visas.
The curtain snaps back to reveal a super graphic of a swastika on a flag. A ramrod Nazi stands on oversize white steps. Suddenly the set is a poster for Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
Though Marlena is requesting a visa for two weeks in Switzerland, under questioning by the sneering, stereotyped Nazi (Matt Silver) the child reveals they are going to America.
The voice of an off stage officer contemptuously tells the young Nazi to get rid of the Jews. They get one week visas.
Now in Switzerland, we see huge stained glass windows as Marlena speaks to a priest (Matt Silver) who is not only politically uninformed; but seems to come from another planet.
He assures Marlena that her fear is exaggerated and she should go back to Germany. Finally, he suggests a family who will take in the girls.
The newly revealed set seems wrong for the story. It is not presented in a psychological way to represent Marlena’s fear of the Nazis or the grandeur of the church; it is just big.
A claustrophobic darkly lit space would make the Nazi encounter more fearful.
After the scene with the priest, the elderly Marlena, in her Fairfax apartment praises the Catholics for protecting her girls. This comment sidetracked me into thinking about the Righteous, but it is not mentioned again.
Marlena is reunited with her husband Gustav on the oversized white steps. He tells his wife that she must not look back, she is in America now.
He reminisces about Cuba where it was so hot the woman wore blouses with no sleeves.
When he wants to make love, Marlena says tomorrow because she doesn’t feel well. Gustav says he should have stayed in Cuba.
Back in the Fairfax apartment, Stella and Francine dread telling their mother that her eldest daughter, Anna, has died. This is another plot sidetrack.
It is hard to relate with Marlena’s grief because we have only seen Anna as a child many years ago. The first act ends with Marlena sobbing that a mother should not outlive a child.
While the second act continues the familiar arguments about assisted living, it also outlines the disintegrating marriage of between Marlena and Gustav.
For me, this is the most interesting part of the play. Each deals with their memories differently. What we see is a “Ghosts” vs. Las Vegas mentality.
Marlena’s mother died in a concentration and she is haunted with guilt because she didn’t really want her difficult mother to leave Germany and live with them in America. Gustav again urges his wife to forget the past.
The Americanized Gus works hard selling the coats he designs and plays hard in Vegas. Marlena, seated at the top of the white stairs, sews collars for the coats. Gustav in a tuxedo shirt with an untied tie, wants her to join him, but she is intent on working.
The set works against the contrasted characters. She is lit like a goddess atop the Acropolis instead of hunched over a dimly lit sewing machine as Gustav urges her to go to Vegas.
Then abruptly Gustav, in an undershirt, gives a long “I coulda been somebody” speech blaming Marlena for his lack of success. She refused let him take out a loan to expand the business. Gustav bitterly tells her if he gets better he is leaving her.
Stella and Francine reveal that their father has died and we are told about an unnecessary failed romance between Marlene and an unseen Charlie. Marlene is now senile and after a fall she is placed in an assisted living home where we learn she dies within a year.
Neither the director, Doug Kaback, nor the actors rise above playwright Sonia Levitin’s surprisingly clichéd script.
WHERE: Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica CA 90405
WHEN: Oct. 12 –Nov. 18, 2012. Fri. at 8 P.M. Sat. at 3 P.M. and 8 P.M. Sun. at 5 P.M.
RESERVATIONS: (310) 392-7327.
ONLINE TICKETING: www.survivingmamatheplay.com