Playwright: Melinda Buckley. At: The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-404-7336 or GreenhouseTheater.org; $25-$30. Runs through: Aug. 14
"Mother," Writer/Performer Melinda Buckley says, and the floor lights up with the word beneath her as thunder rolls, "It's a big word."
With that edict, we are whisked into the lives of Melinda and her mother Eileen, two uproariously funny women embodied by one. The Greenhouse Theater Center kicks off a series of solo performances with a two-week engagement of Mother ( and Me ), a production that asks us who we are when we lose someone we love.
In Mother ( and Me ), Melinda Buckley deftly embodies all her closest relatives to tell the story of her family overcoming dysfunction to brace for inevitable loss. In one stretch of an elongated cigarette hand, she is her mother Eileen, a feisty Hungarian refugee slipping away into old age. With a slouch and gravel in her voice, she is her elder brother; add a bit more menace to her posture, and she becomes her long absent father.
That's hardly the extent of the expansive cast of doctors, hospice patients, husbands and game-show hosts that Buckley can call forward at a moment's notice. She also has an arsenal of set pieces, costumes andno, wait: She has none of those things. Instead, Buckley steps into her past by stepping in and out of gobo shadows, and conjures her memories with music cues. She gestures to her sleeves and, using only words, dresses her mother in a black satin dress for a date with a gentleman caller.
Eileen has come from a tumultuous past, and rankled against the authority of her Hungarian family, nations at war and her stoic GI ex-husband. Even as life's rifts pull them in different directions, Eileen and Melinda rally under the canopy of the thing they love most: musical theater. Years later, Melinda is a Broadway success, but her mother is fading due to dementia, and there is little either of them can do besides sing to each other, wage war with an unfeeling care facility, and await Eileen's final curtain.
Buckley is buoyant and hilarious in nearly anyone's guise, and does more with a stool and a smile than a lesser theater company could do with a big budget and cast roster. Director Kimberly Senior has engineered a deceptively simple technical marvel of a show. That said, there are moments where Buckley's characters border on culturally insensitive for the sake of a joke. When she seeks spiritual guidance from Japanese friend "Miyuki" ( complete with strong accent and broken English ), my heart sank.
The portrayal may be based on the mannerisms of a real subject for all I know, but the sentiment cheapened an otherwise very honest and rich exploration. There are stronger, funnier choices to be made, and I trust this stellar storyteller to find them.