If you live in or near Portland, Maine, and you’re a woman who struggles in relationship with her mother and/or sister (that’s almost every woman I know!), you owe it to yourself to see Bess Welden’s riveting new play, Madeleines.
You can catch it Thursday through Sunday at Portland Stage’s Studio Theater. Welden boldly tackles universal family themes of estrangement between mothers and daughters, sibling rivalry, and the longing for maternal love and acceptance.
The two leads, Karen Ball and Julia Langham are pitch perfect.
The entire play is set in a cozy-retro kitchen with ‘50’s era appliances, where Rose, the mother, ran a thriving cookie business until days before her death. Rose learned how to bake by helping her father run his bakery, dropping out of high school towards this end.
The play opens with the elderly Rose, (Karen Ball), reenacting her girlish conversations with her father where she charms him into letting her introduce exotic pastries like madeleines and sweets with fresh raspberries alongside his bagels and rye bread. Rose conducts her father-daughter dialogue with two wooden spoons. One is held higher to represent the father with the other spoon held at a lower level to represent young Rose. The charming talking spoons dialogue is interrupted when Rose’s youngest daughter, Debra, (Julia Langham) jumps up from her hiding place behind the counter to appease her mother who becomes distraught when she realizes she has added salt and not sugar to her cookie recipe.
Shifts in the action are conveyed by a dark stage accompanied by background melodramatic music reminiscent of what one hears in 40’s film tracks—it’s a light campy touch, which may or may not fit, but I liked the counterbalance.
Fast forward to the day after Rose’s funeral. Standing on opposite sides of the kitchen are the two middle-aged sisters, who haven’t seen one another, by Debra’s calculation, in “16 months and six days,” This is a direct lob at Jennifer who was AWOL during the one year plus Debra cared for Rose.
Multiple reenactments occur where Jennifer and Debra exchange the role of Rose as one or the other sister becomes her younger self, chronicling the major events in their growing up. These shifting roles add energy and surprise to the play. This is a risky device, which could have backfired with less accomplished actors and director.
Ann Tracy, the director, brings to Madeleines a lifetime of experience as an actor, playwright and director. Her confident steerage is apparent. There is a grace and fluidity to the shifting roles.
The two sisters release years of suppressed anger towards one another. Debra refers to Rose’s recipe box (which emerges as a strong supporting character) having discovered that Rose titled all her cookie recipes for the occasion on which they were baked.
To Debra’s dismay almost all of the recipes reflect milestones in Jennifer’s life, with amusing references like “cookies for Jennifer’s first period.” Debra cynically laments the lack of recipes noting her markers, such as her high school drunken sprees or her abortion.
Eventually both sisters realize that neither one had a close, satisfying relationship with their mother who was too busy baking to be there for them. Rose’s busyness concealed her fears of intimacy. Debra pieces together the reasons for this, revealing her mother’s secrets: one is contained in her love for madeleines and the other is tucked away in the back of the recipe box.
Debra’s new information about her mother’s life changes her. She sheds her intense anger. The new softer Debra confesses to her sister that now she understands Rose. Jennifer, on the other hand, is left grief-stricken by the revelations, seemingly rudderless.
This play brought back memories of a lecture I heard years ago, where a famous family therapist said, “You often know your siblings least well of anyone in your life.”
Madeleines also reminded me of how important it is to get past our wounded memories so that we can view our mothers through their life experiences in order to truly know them and to free ourselves in the process.