Review: Motherhouse at Rivendell Theatre—The Devil Is in the Details

Everyone knows that a house’s most liminal space, the kitchen, is where all of the important action unfolds. The world premiere of Motherhouse (script by Tuckie White and direction by Azar Kazemi) at Rivendell Theatre is a perfect example of that. It's a chilling family gathering where grief cannot be explored directly without wading through the intergenerational traumas of growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family. Their kitchen is a perfect, misleadingly calm space in sage green with white cabinets. Sitting in front of this set before the show, the kitchen draws you in, putting you right at the oval table with the family.

In the midst of the ensuing 90-minute whirlwind of boundary crossing, witty banter and frazzled interpersonal dynamics, the slow reveal is Annie, a grieving adult daughter attempting to write her mother’s eulogy. Somehow every story she digs up from her relatives is bittersweet or tinged with perplexing sadism. As her four aunts slowly trickle in to purportedly help her write this homage to their big sister, family strife is revealed through their hilarious retelling of traumatic events, until it begins to occur to each of them that their grief is complicated and their relationships far from ideal.

The interesting twist is how each character deals with that dawning realization. Should they push it away with drink, food or denial? One prefers to turn away from conflict for a liedown while another prefers to face the demons head on with push back in the name of closure and healing, and the mix is volatile.

This play is full of comic and quirky imagery that verges on disturbing. The dialogs are packed with bloody bones, talk of tree-sexuals and cults, murder tales and evil pranks. One such prank, a tale of a frozen goldfish, leads to memories of scheduled whippings as they recall their father’s ominous declaration with peals of laughter “A banquet of consequences you shall face.” 

With such heavy topics; death, loss, abuse and family dysfunction—you’d think the play itself would lay heavy on your heart, but instead it gets it thumping.  Playwright Tuckie White deftly weaves genres (drama, comedy and horror) as well as she spins the tale. Mixed in with awkward reunions are old grudges, laugh-out-loud one-liners, and very relatable relationships.

The baby sister—Aunt Lizzie (played by Tara Mallen, founding artistic director of Rivendell) is constantly being reminded that she was too young to remember/understand a shared story being recounted. Her protests go unheard, so she falls back on being the soother, always offering food when things get tense. The outdoorsy Aunt Weezie (played to comic perfection by Meighan Gerachis) is the loud sister with no filter who drinks like a fish to stave off her own rage and grief. Aunt Tucker (played by Mary Cross) channels her avoidance of trauma into migraines, while family truth seeker Aunt Barb (Jane Baxter Miller) was so desperate to get away from home that she ran away as a teen with the first cult leader who offered her an escape, making her relationship with the ‘abandoned’ sisters tenuous at best.

Annie (Jessica Ervin) sits in her kitchen, attempting to write her mother's eulogy. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In contrast to the bluster of four sisters there is Annie, played by Jessica Ervin. Sweet, heartbroken Annie, grieving and people-pleasing and struggling to do right by her mother as her reality slowly unravels. She senses her mother’s ghost in the house, or perhaps her mother is the house. If so, she is a demanding one that flickers lights at just the right ironic moment and blasts music to shock people out of their stupor. Meanwhile, Annie’s own voice is seemingly trapped in her throat, which she clutches at as tensions rise between siblings. In her struggle to write the perfect eulogy, she receives no guidance or epiphany, and finding her voice becomes a visceral struggle for her. 

Annie reaches a breaking point as the shades of each of the stories build on each other and we begin to understand that she herself is the biggest victim of this family's dysfunction and denial. Crossing an invisible line, Aunt Barbara commits nonconsensual hypnosis on her niece to pull long buried secrets out of her, but then refuses to acknowledge the violation of privacy.

By facing her own ghosts—a controlling, often callous mother with too much charisma, and a traumatic experience that was erased in the name of family peace—Annie begins to confront what she has been taught by all to cover up. Approaching that boundary riles everyone up, and they all try to silence her in order for their own truth to be heard. Her Aunt Barbara tries to describe the complexity of her love for the dead sister “And to receive her love...Oh. It was like a warm meal. This house was not safe. Your mom protected us in a way but I needed...more help.” Later, to her clueless baby sister Lizzie (who wishes she had inherited some of the family jewels) Barbara snaps, “They were not a gift. They were reparations.”

Implicit in the story is the concept that this type of reckoning among women is healthy, if difficult, and that the time has come to normalize conversations around ways in which intergenerational traumas can be passed on through the guise or vehicle of love. In this way, Annie comes to understand her mother’s betrayal of her. Underneath it is an angry, righteous young woman who takes no shit from anyone, but who is infinitely more humane and alive. Perhaps she finds strength in claiming the house which is now hers and which the sisters have been ransacking for food and keepsakes. Channeling some of her mother’s charisma and power, she seemingly finds her own voice, as well as the presence of mind and inner calm needed to write that eulogy, alone.  

Scenic design of that so-important kitchen is by Lauren M. Nichols with lighting design by Gabrielle Strong and sound design by Victoria Deiorio. Janice Pytel handles costume design and props are by Ivy Treccani. Pat Fries is stage manager. 

Motherhouse at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 Ridge Ave., has been extended and will run until May 21. Tickets are $28 for seniors, $39 general admission; sponsor and angel ti cket prices are available as well.

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Kim Campbell

Kim Campbell (they/them) is a freelance editor, podcaster and creative writer who has spent a career focusing on the arts, particularly literature, theater and circus. Former editor of CircusTalk News, they have written about theater and circus for Third Coast Review since its very beginning. Kim is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and the International Network of Circus Arts Magazines. In 2019, they were on the jury of FIRCO in Madrid (Circus Festival Iberoamericano) and in 2021 they were on the voting committee for the International Circus Awards. See their tweets at @kimzyn or follow them on Instagram.