As the saying goes, “everybody has a mother.” Though, talk to enough people and this humanizing thought begins to sound a bit incomplete, as if some sentimental scamp, perhaps in an effort to sell more Hallmark cards, lopped off the necessary qualifier: “for better or worse.” Because, no matter how much we want to believe a mother’s love is pure, that’s an unreasonable emotional expectation to lay on anybody.
What our mothers owe us – and what we owe them – is at the heart of Leenya Rideout’s one-woman autobiographical show, Wild Abandon. In it, the prodigiously accomplished singer, songwriter, playwright, actor, and multi-instrumentalist comes to terms with both her mother’s life and her own. Perhaps these twin goals converge a bit too neatly, especially given the harrowingly true complications Leenya introduces along the way, but there are so many hard-earned and poignant insights in Wild Abandon that the end result is successful nonetheless.
Things start off with the denim-drenched, fiddle-carrying Leenya stumbling into the tiny studio space at the will keep the rest of the band from making the gig. Leenya is just the backup singer, but tonight she’s going to be the star, a distinction she never experienced in her previous life as an underemployed Broadway performer.
To be sure, it’s a strained dramatic conceit, but one that provides an opportunity for Leenya to tell her fraught tale while also showing off those buried talents on a piano, double bass, electric guitar, and bodhrán. Okay, yes, maybe a bunch of beer-guzzling Long Islanders in search of a little mindless fun wouldn’t necessarily be receptive to 90 minutes of searing mother-daughter memories. But stretching credulity for your framing device is not an unforgivable sin, particularly when everything else feels so grounded in reality.
Like Leenya, her mother Lynn is an artist, though, in contrast to her worldly daughter, mom’s major creative endeavor, painting, is practiced away from demanding eyes in a small shed in western Washington State. A sampling of her abstract efforts wraps around Narelle Sissons’ wonderfully homey wood-slatted set, which is obviously intended to evoke mom’s ersatz art studio much more than a dive bar in Long Island. It’s both a touching tribute to Lynn’s cloistered artistic existence and a way of chipping away at it. A program note informing us that mom’s works are available for purchase through a web site completes a very affectionate recognition of mom’s own buried talents.
Despite Lynn’s avowed humility, however, Leenya repeatedly asserts that her mother has wanted, if not actually craved, attention for a long time; it’s a desire that has become even more of an agonizing weight ever since her daughter’s remarkable skills and ambitions started translating into bigger triumphs, like the lead role in an international tour of My Fair Lady. It’s this sort of hypocrisy, fueled by presumed jealousy, that underlies much of the tension in Leenya’s stitched-together vignettes and original songs.
Depicting her mother as devoutly religious and preternaturally self-effacing, Leenya doesn’t pull any punches in her unflinching lyrics, characterizing Lynn, in the opening ditty, as someone willing to “blend into the woodwork, content to let you shine,” followed by the undermining refrain “she’s just a church lady, but don’t let her fool ya!” And, of course, there is other grating behavior to recollect, most notably mom’s constant and aggressively unsubtle admonitions about what she considers life’s central priority for a young woman: finding a husband. As Leenya echoingly sings, “you must stay pretty and thin and sweet and ne’er your sorrow betray. For it’s better an unhappy wife to be than to live as a withered old maid.”
But there are traumas that explain why Lynn takes comfort in patently absurd absolutes that she herself frequently abandons. And, as this long-hidden suffering is revealed to Leenya, she comes to understand how much strength it took for Lynn to care for a daughter when no one had cared for her.
The production could have done without a couple of the thematically repetitive songs, or at the very least the reprises, but, otherwise, director Lisa Rothe keeps everything moving along nicely while also maintaining perfect clarity between present and past. Mike Baldassari’s lighting design deserves a lot of credit for contributing to the latter, too, especially during a late expressionistic sequence that makes heartbreaking use of those wooden slats to reveal the depths of Lynn’s lingering anguish.
Although Wild Abandon is the story of Leenya and Lynn’s relationship, it still leaves you to grapple with two difficult questions that I’m sure keep a lot of us up at night: how much did your mother love you, and more unsettlingly, how much did you love her?
Wild Abandon (through October 21, 2018)
Irish Repertory Theatre
Scott McLucas Studio Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission