Motherhood sure isn’t what it used to be. There are four moms among five characters in Cheryl L. West’s “Jar the Floor,” a new(-ish) play at the Second Stage Theater, but nobody’s baking any cookies.
When would they find the time? They’re all too busy alienating and neglecting their daughters, or seeking recognition and succor for their own maternally inflicted wounds.
While there is much to enjoy in “Jar the Floor,” notably a healthy dose of tart humor and some superb performances from a powerhouse cast, the play is dismayingly overstuffed with conflict and contention and mechanical bursts of bitterness. Its more appealing aspects are eventually subsumed in a tide of bile that is strangely at odds with its warm, old-fashioned style.
The action unfolds on the 90th birthday of MaDear (Irma P. Hall), who lives with her granddaughter Maydee (Regina Taylor), an arrangement that’s one bone of contention — among enough to build a closetful of skeletons — between Maydee and her mother Lola (Lynne Thigpen), MaDear’s daughter.
Comically cantankerous and confused, and played with exacting honesty by Hall , MaDear emerges from a sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing dream of the past only to toss the occasional insult or recrimination at her daughter or granddaughter. “I shoulda killed you when you was born,” she growls at Lola at one point.
That kind of frank talk runs in the family. By play’s end Maydee, ostensibly the most grounded of these women, will accuse Lola of allowing her stepfather to sexually abuse her , and quietly tell her own daughter Vennie (Linda Powell) that she doesn’t really like her. Vennie, who arrives with a rebelliously pierced nose and shaved head, has her own assortment of issues to air. So it goes in this vision of family dysfunction, African-American division, distaff department.
West has a natural and pleasing talent for earthy comic dialogue, and her actresses do it full justice. Thigpen has a ball with Lola’s withering wit, as she dismisses the pretensions to gentility of a friend who “buys her shoes and her food in the same store,” or Maydee’s academic career in African-American studies, which she mocks as “teaching black people how to be black.”
Lola’s salty humor gives her a humanity than softens her aggressively contemptuous edges, and Thigpen’s performance ennobles the character as well: When she faces down Maydee’s accusation, Thigpen radiates a sudden and terrible gravity that’s in poignant contrast to her boisterous high spirits. The revelations may be familiar, but in Thigpen’s exquisitely theatrical performance , the pain is deep and searingly fresh.
Taylor’s task is harder, since Maydee is the play’s most unpleasantly conceived character. She scorns her mother’s dependence on men (indeed she scorns men), tirelessly berates Vennie for her lack of interest in her studies, and dismisses her hopes of a singing career, tellingly her plainly she’s not talented enough. (Thanks, mom!) This in addition to correcting her grammar.
Presumably we are meant to admire Maydee’s gumption, intelligence and achievement — she raised Vennie on her own, working as many as five jobs — but in her attempts to keep the play’s plot on the boil, West keeps Maydee’s nose to the grindstone churning up conflict to an unnatural degree. (“I don’t want to argue,” Maydee says nobly toward the end, after picking fights for two hours.) Even an actress of Taylor’s talents can’t succeed in making her sympathetic.
The playwright needn’t have worried about insufficient dramatic fireworks. Add to the mix Vennie’s lesbianism, and the possibly terminal breast cancer of her lover Raisa (Welker White), and “Jarthe Floor” has enough material for a good week of talkshow chatter. The overkill is a pity, because the play harbors many touching and telling moments of truth, as when Lola defends her obsessive search for a man against her daughter’s fervent hopes for tenure (“The need’s the same”), or MaDear touches Raisa’s scar with childish fascination, and offers words of comfort: “We’ve all got scars. Some folks just wear theirs on the inside.”
Without fail, the actresses rise to the occasion under Marion McClinton’s unfussy direction, hinting at the superior evening of theater that “Jar the Floor” might have been if West had applied a lighter touch. If the play’s angst could be cut in half, its strengths would be far better served.