Time and again, Carnegie Stage and off the WALL Productions force the audience to challenge their perception of what live theater is, constantly introducing plays with confrontational topics and thought provoking characters. Mother Lode is no exception. The play is a powerful and captivating delivery of agitation, anger and tension but also regrets, sentimentality and love. Written and co- directed by Pittsburgh playwright Virginia Wall Gruenert, co-founder of off the WALL, Mother Lode is based on the life of Pittsburgh actor Linda Haston and her mother Ruth. The play stars Haston as the only two characters; Linda, the adult daughter charged with the task of caring for her aging mother, and Ruth, the mother who suffers from dementia.
The set is nostalgic with large portraits from decades past hung on the wall, a vintage stand-up radio in the corner, hat boxes and a tall coat rack decorate the space which serves throughout the performance as an office, Ruth’s home, a dance studio and a hospital waiting room. The blues play softly and the lights are dim until Linda approaches the audience and begins her dramatic monologue.
Linda, the dutiful daughter, fulfills the role of pharmacist, chauffeur, cook, nurse and primary companion while her brother lives a few blocks away but only calls when he needs money. Ruth is not easy to care for, she is demanding, confused and moody. Linda struggles with exhaustion and resentment while her mother struggles to make peace with her past.
Haston takes us back and forth between the role of mother and daughter simply by putting on or removing a hat and coat. Linda, dressed casual in slacks and a nondescript blouse speaks frankly with the audience, stating saucily, ‘I could kill her’, as she describes her daily battles with Ruth. When she places the bowler hat with flowers in the band on her head and slips a purple jacket over her blouse she is transformed into Ruth. Ruth knows Linda would probably ‘kill her if she thought she would get away with it’. Regardless, she doesn’t allow the audience to hear only one side of the story and talks of growing up poor and black in Alabama in the early 1920’s. She speaks of her move up North to Pittsburgh at the young age of fifteen, the life of independence she made for herself and especially the life she desired for her daughter Linda.
Ruth wears many hats. Each prompts the telling of a story, a secret, a moment that needs revisited. One for the youthful waitress in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood dancing carefree and independent, one for the new bride and young mother raising a family with her husband Royal Sr., one of a mother guiding and protecting her young children. A brokenhearted hat for a daughter who has to come to terms with the death of her mother, Eldorado. She wears yet another hat when Royal Sr. leaves the house and she is left alone to raise the children, pay the bills and maintain a home.
Linda never changes costume, and remains tried and true throughout the performance however, with each story Ruth shares we see Linda crack just a bit. We learn how emotionally taxing caring for an elderly parent can be and and how desperate for relief Linda is quickly becoming. One of the most compelling scenes is when Linda seeks a brief reprieve from care taking, and attends a dance rehearsal. She ties her tap shoes, counts the beats and begins her sequence. She bounces and smiles enthusiastic, temporarily escaping the verbal and and emotional abuse of her mentally deteriorating mother, then her phone rings. She stops dancing to answer her mother’s call, quickly getting back to the routine. No sooner is Linda tapping again when the phone rings, then a third time. Linda’s spirit crushed, she screams out in frustration and fatigue. Linda realizes her own mental and physical health are on the line. Linda cannot continue to sacrifice her life for the sake of her elderly mother. Where does she draw the line?
Mother Lode keeps Linda and Ruth tied together with one common thread; singing. Each character sings deeply emotive and guttural hymns when feeling troubled, scared, or need uplifted. Song acts as the testament of their unspoken love and unwavering bond.
Haston moves fluidly between characters, adopting different mannerisms and styles of speech. As Linda she is straight forward and tells it like it is. In a purple jacket and a hat she is Ruth and enjoys sharing her colorful stories with zeal.
Over the course of one hour and ten minutes Mother Lode blurs the line between life and art. Gruenert’s rendering of this time in Haston‘s life is far from tender. Yet Haston’s deliverance of characters is heartfelt. I left the theater thinking no matter how often the phrase, ‘like mother, like daughter’ is denied, there is always some truth to it.
Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets.
Catch a few more performances of Mother Lode in June and August. For tickets and more information, check out their website here.