Mother Dearest

"The world is getting more brutish," trophy wife Gloria Temple tells her estranged daughter, Marcie. "And that makes art even more important." Temple's reasons for saying this are selfish: she wants her daughter to abandon her happy bohemian life in New Mexico to take over the family's New York business, a foundation for the performing arts. But her quote feels resonant outside its context, especially in regards to this production of December Fools, playing at the Abingdon Theater Company. Perhaps playwright Sherman Yellen has expressed his own feelings in this dialogue, for this funny, touching and inspiring story of a mother and daughter coming to terms with their past is a perfect illustration of why art is important.

Temple, played by the distinguished stage veteran Elizabeth Shepherd, is the vivacious, driving force in this story. Though she is a sick, elderly woman dependent on her trusted housekeeper, Mrs. Hogan (Celia Howard), to help her get around, she carries herself with a stunning grace that can come only from one who has lived an upper-crust lifestyle. There is a spark in her eyes and a fire to her personality that give us a glimpse of the kind of lady she must have been many years ago when she married a philandering Broadway composer.

Her wayward daughter Marcie (Arleigh Richards) has inherited her inner fire, if nothing else. The rift between them is visually obvious. Gloria is a graceful, refined woman often clad in furs and silk shawls. Marcie stumbles around in jeans and a sweater, hardly what one would expect from the privileged daughter of a celebrated Broadway composer and his elegant wife.

But despite their image as a prosperous Broadway legend's picture-perfect family, neither Gloria nor Marcie has led a happy life. Both women were wronged by the men they loved, betrayed by those they trusted, and hurt by the tragic, senseless loss of a family member. Marcie has no hesitations in vocalizing her disgust with the world around her, but Gloria can express her feelings only by writing letters she never plans to send.

Her nonconfrontational approach comes back to haunt her the day Marcie accidentally stumbles upon her collection of indictments against family, friends, and acquaintances. One letter hits particularly close to home, as it involves a hurtful secret her mother has lied about for years. Determined to right this injustice, Marcie mails the letters.

When December Fools opens, it appears the main conflict will be Gloria's efforts to keep her daughter in New York to run the family business, but as the play unfolds, it is clear there is much more at stake. Gloria and Marcie are two divided souls trying to find a common ground, not only because they are family but also because they need each other. When they face off, they are evenly matched, as only a mother and daughter can be. Their verbal battles are laced with telling one-liners and weighty revelations, but in the end there can be no winner. Both women carry a heavy amount of baggage and will never be fully relieved of the burden.

Their history feels deeply rooted and real. Shepherd and Richards are thoroughly convincing in their roles, especially in the climactic final fight where stifled emotions bubbling beneath the play's surface explode in a flurry of hurtful accusations. The conclusion spares us a neat resolution. The characters continue on, shouldering their burdens and harboring their resentment, yet acknowledging that in the end none of this matters when all they have is each other.

In a beautiful and touching line of dialogue, Gloria says, "Memories make such bad company. They come uninvited, overstay their welcome, and leave a mess when they go." Indeed, these memories have left quite a mess. Fortunately, Marcie and Gloria reach a place where they find it in themselves to clean things up together.

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