The Secret Life of a Mother is “unapologetically human”
The review for Secret Life of a Mother was supposed to be easy. It was supposed to be a slam dunk. It’s an incredible show created by a powerhouse team. With so much talent and heart on display, it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to enjoy about it. The shows you love are supposed to be easy to write about.
But for some reason, here I am, submitting this review three days late (being the boss has its perks).
Except, here’s the thing; on some level, I know why. The whole night was an intensely emotional one for me, and I am still kind of reeling from it. Some of it was about the play directly – this show doesn’t pull punches. There were moments when I felt words were coming from my brain and being spoken on stage, and that was a vaguely surreal and entirely visceral experience for me. I felt it in my body – much to the annoyance of the woman sitting two seats down from me who did not appreciate my sniffling and crying.
For context, the piece is largely an autobiographical piece by playwright Hannah Moscovitch – the story of Moscovitch as a mother. But while Moscovitch holds the pen as playwright, the piece has four co-creators. They are Moscovitch, Maev Beaty (who is also the actor of the piece), Ann-Marie Kerr (who is also the director), and Marinda de Beer. Together these four women make up The SLOM Collective. Since it is autobiographical, when these thoughts and experiences were expressed on stage, the ones that so closely mirrored my own, they weren’t what someone imagined someone else might think. They were the actual thoughts and experiences of another real live person.
It’s a very odd sensation to at once feel solidarity, to feel the relief of not being alone, but also to perhaps feel reminded of difficult things that you had temporarily boxed up for safekeeping in your psyche. Usually, when we talk about being seen, it is an amazing, wonderful experience. And the truth is, it was. It was wonderful to be seen in that way. It was wonderful to have that solidarity. But peeking into that box was difficult, and I needed to sit with it for a bit before I could write this.
So far, I’ve made it sound like this is some emotionally difficult play, and I mean, it’s not a walk in the park – but my show partner Nicole and I were really surprised by just how funny the show is. When I say it was an intensely emotional night for me, I don’t mean it was a night full of sorrow, I mean my emotions ran the gamut, and there was a great deal of raucous laughter to be had.
Throughout the piece, Beaty plays the role of Hannah Moscovitch; however, she occasionally steps out of the role of Hannah and into the role of Maev Beaty. In fact, the show starts with Maev coming to the front of the stage and greeting us with such an open and welcoming demeanour that I didn’t realize the play had begun. We were all relaxed and laughing; it felt a bit like hanging out with a friend. Then she stepped into the role of Hannah and we knew we’d begun.
Camellia Koo has designed a striking, but sparse, stage. It is mostly bare except for two rectangular aquariums at opposite sides, and a chair between them. One is smaller and filled with water, the other is very big but only has a little bit of water. These are aquariums used beautifully throughout the piece at different times in different ways, introducing some surprising moments of physicality.
The piece also uses projections beautifully throughout. In fact, it may be one of my favourite experiences with projections in a theatrical piece. Cameron Davis has done a beautiful job with the design of them. They never felt superfluous, or like they were upstaging the live action on stage. The first projection elicited a well-deserved gasp from the audience, but I won’t tell you any more than that.
Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting, Debashis Sinha’s sound, and Erika Connor’s costume design were generally very subtle, which is suited me just fine. Given the almost informal conversational tone of much of the piece, overlaying it with a bunch of overly theatrical lighting and sound would have caused a cognitive disconnect for me. In so many ways, the design of this show is incredibly subtle. This piece is about the script and the performance, which are highlighted beautifully.
Nicole pointed out that for her, it felt like the show had a ‘confessional track’ and a ‘theatrical track,’ and that juxtaposition more than worked for me. Kerr’s direction brought me the soft and casual feeling of relaxing with a friend and then upped the tension with a more formal theatrical feel – sometimes even slipping into an almost performance art feeling – and then brought me back to the soft, safer casual feelings again. There was something about the combination of Beaty’s incredible performance, Kerr’s excellent direction, and Moscovitch’s evocative writing that made me feel challenged and safe at the same time.
The piece would be beautiful and touching even it didn’t have that transferable, translatable, transposable thing that good stories so often have. Even though this is unapologetically autobiographical and specific to one person’s experience, it is also universal. There are different places and things for everyone to dig in and latch onto. And that’s the beauty of theatre.
I spoke to one man after the show who talked about how he sat watching the show: taking it in, nodding along. He was enjoying it on an intellectual level. He then looked over at his girlfriend who was apparently a weeping mess. He was stunned that they could be experiencing it in such different ways. Neither of them is a parent, that wasn’t the difference. They just had different ways into the show.
That is basically my mantra – everyone sees a different show based on their life experience. When he was alive, it was something Wayne and I would talk about — and experience together — a lot. (For those who may not be regular MoT readers, Wayne Leung was our Managing Editor). It was always exciting to go to a show together and then talk about how we experienced it differently – and I found myself wondering what show my queer, first-generation Chinese-Canadian male friend who never had kids would see as he sat next too me during this one. (If I’m being honest – this is another reason why it was an intensely emotional night for me). I know he would have enjoyed it, but he would have seen things I didn’t, and I would love to know what they are.
My point is, you don’t have to be a mother to connect to this. You will just see a different show. So, treat yourself, take 80 minutes to sit down and experience this journey that is so unapologetically human. There is fiercely messy, beautiful, awful, wonderful, joyful life on display here through exquisite storytelling.
- Secret Life of a Mother is playing until February 23, 2020 at Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue)
- Shows run Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm, with 2:00pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
- Ticket prices range from $30 to $55. Subscription and single ticket discounts are available for seniors and students.
- Tickets are available online, by phone at (647) 341-7390 ext. 1010 , or in person at the box office
Photo of Maev Beaty by Kyle Purcell