One woman takes on three generations in Shelley Marshall’s auto-biographical show at Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre
Hamilton native Shelley Marshall has had one hell of a life. Having survived two generations of mental illness and then a bout of her own that resulted in a suicide attempt and hospitalization – including days kept in solitary – Shelley found her freedom and passion through creation and comedy. Inspired by the words of one of her doctors and the show Who’s Line is it Anyway?, Shelley enrolled in Second City.
Hold Mommy’s Cigarette is an autobiographical one-woman show where Shelley takes on portraying her grandmother, her mother and her younger self, reliving her tumultuous past and emerging as the talented comedic artist she is today.
The performance starts out with, what I hope, is an exaggeration of Shelley’s grandmother in the 70s – ignoring the incessant phone calls, grumbling about the state of the nation while reading the paper, chain smoking, and yelling into the void at her unseen husband. What we learn about grandma is clear: she’s not easy to live with, has a homophobic streak, values old fashioned tradition, and sends a young Shelley out to buy her cigarettes.
Following that we see Shelley as a child, crawling out from under the kitchen table where she was hiding all along. Little Shelley with Coke bottle glasses and an imagination just as intense. It’s clear where her creative side comes from – a personal world built up to protect and encapsulate herself that won’t quit. You can’t help but feel for the poor kid with grandma’s tyrannical streak and mom who reacts by choosing the escapist route – find any guy she can marry who can take her and Shelley away.
And that’s Gloria, Shelley’s mother, a woman obsessed with glam, beauty and finding love in all the wrong places. Having learned previously from grandma that Gloria’s former husband, Shelley’s father, has a restraining order against her, Gloria isn’t phased and, in fact, has a new (younger) man in her life, one she’s happy to run away with and live on a farm. Though the woman may have her head firmly stuck in the clouds, Shelley adores her.
The narration switches between grandma, Gloria and Shelley, bringing the story together. The transitions start off with the lights fading to black, a well-chosen musical interlude, and Shelley reappearing in a different costume but as the transitions between scenes and characters became more frequent, onstage costume changes signified a new scene. Due to how frequent these changes happened, the transition stopped becoming seamless and often felt like they were cutting into scenes we hoped would be longer.
Accompanying me to this performance was my friend Paul, a theater performer, writer, and former Second City student who also finds a story about generations of mental illness as a story that hits close to home. His impressions of this story were definitely a mixed bag and I couldn’t help but agree.
I found Shelley’s portrayals of her grandmother and her mother to feel rather forced and exaggerated – loud, boisterous, and pushing the limits of that for effect. I didn’t feel that this connected with the audience as well as it could have and because of how over the top the portrayal was, I felt disengaged from it, as did Paul.
During the second half of the performance where Shelley revealed that the culmination of living with her grandmother, her mother, both of whom passed away on her, is what landed her in the hospital on suicide watch. That moment felt the most genuine and heartfelt, this felt like Shelley’s real self and where she connected with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to us. We both wished she had been able to start this way and carried it through.
I asked Paul what he would’ve liked to have seen differently and he said that if Shelley were to rework her story, telling her tale from her own perspective living with her mother, her grandmother, learning about the demise of her father, living in fear as a child of always doing something wrong whenever she heard the loud footsteps on the stairs below signaling an adult coming home and she wasn’t alone anymore. Further details into all of those triggers could have added to a more compelling story, one that could have really showcased her triumph in surviving mental illness.
Shelley is a fantastic performer and it’s clear that her time at Second City really helped hone her skills. She mentioned that she learned clown during her studies and there were moments throughout her performance – these gems that didn’t occur often enough – that really stood out. In particular a young Shelley playing dress-up with mommy’s dressing gown, sticking one arm through the sleeve and allowing that arm to be mom, massaging her hair and consoling her.
But despite the slight disconnect we both felt at the beginning of the performance, her second half and ending, a salute to a suitcase full of memories (that includes some audience participation), brought the story home and really allowed her and her story shine. In that moment, she’s a winner, and you feel it with her and it was worth being taken through her journey. For anyone who has ever had to overcome mental illness or knows a loved one who has, Hold Mommy’s Cigarette is well worth seeing.