November 22, 2009
Every so often I see a play that takes such a piercing look at the interior lives of individuals and at the relationships with a family that I begin to feel as if I shouldn’t be watching it. I had that reaction the first time I saw Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” and particularly the scene in which Bella explains her needs as a woman to her stern Prussian mother. I literally squirmed in my seat.
I got that feeling last night while we were watching Thom Thomas’s new play, “A Moon to Dance By,” which is about Frieda Lawrence, who was married to novelist D.H. Lawrence and was the inspiration for the principal women in several of his works.
The action in this play, which we saw at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., takes place after the writer has died. Frieda has moved to New Mexico with her lover, Angelo Ravagli. Jane Alexander plays Frieda, and Robert Cuccioli plays Ravagli.
Frieda left her husband and three children to elope with Lawrence, who had been her husband’s student in England. Her contact with her children was sporadic after that, and while she was able to establish a more or less normal relationship her daughters, her son, Monty, remained distant. In this play, Monty — now a grown man with a family of his own — pays his first visit to Frieda in New Mexico.
The relationship between a mother and her son is a unique thing in nature and one that probably is not explored more than superficially in most families. It certainly wasn’t in my experience.
“I have a son and two step-sons,” Jane Alexander told me before this play opened, “and we’ve never had that conversation. I have it with my daughter-in-law. Mothers and daughters, I think, are far more intimate about life’s intimacies than mothers and sons.”
Nonetheless, mother and son have “that conversation” in this play, and it is mesmerizing on the one hand and difficult to watch on the other. I know I wasn’t alone in that reaction; I talked to others in the audience afterwards, and they agreed — but they needn’t have, because the tension was palpable in the house.
It didn’t hurt that this wonderful script was being performed by Alexander and Cuccioli and that Monty was being played by a brilliant actor, Gareth Saxe, in one of the most finely nuanced performances I can remember. The young man arrives at his mother’s home hell-bent on expressing his disapproval and disappointment but not acknowledging even to himself what he really needs to get from her and what he needs to give her from the store of emotions he has bottled up for decades.
It was uncomfortable, and it was great theater.