The charming couple seated next to me made these comments after the Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “In the Summer House”:
She: “Mothers and daughters, what a tangled, complicated bond.”
He: “You said it. A lot of the woman-to-woman stuff flew right over my head.”
That pretty much sums up the mixed emotions you feel watching the 1953 cult classic by Jane Bowles, who is unfortunately better known as the wife of Paul (“The Sheltering Sky”) Bowles. “In the Summer House” is her only drama, a fragmented memory play that is at once tragic and acerbically witty.
The production, under the careful direction of Steven Scott Mazzola, does an admirable job piecing together the disparate parts of Miss Bowles’ eccentric, expressionistic vision. The play has enormous gaps of logic and time. Since the audience has to take such audacious leaps, Mr. Mazzola keeps the onstage action clean and simple.
Thank heavens for that, since it would be easy to get lost, much in the same way the character Molly (Sarah Gitenstein) loses herself amid the thick foliage of the summer house of the title.
The play explores the smothering relationships between three sets of mothers and daughters in a Southern California seaside town in the early 1950s. Gertrude Eastman Cuevas (Maura McGinn) is a snotty, contrary, middle-aged woman. Out of boredom, she has pared her life to two things — sitting on her porch and looking at the ocean and berating her awkward, lame daughter, Molly. The daughter is the twin sister of Laura in “A Glass Menagerie,” a painfully shy and deluded young woman dominated by her strong-willed mother.
“Why don’t you go inside and freshen up — it might sharpen your wits,” is just one in a long line of zingers uttered by Gertrude to her hapless child.
Gertrude has decided to take in boarders. Her first is Vivian Constable (Jeanne Dillon), an alarmingly lively girl who never met a bandwagon she didn’t want to leap on. She comes to the house to escape her doting mother (Annie Houston), who has taken a suite at the hotel next door so she can keep tabs on Vivian. The third set of mother-daughters consists of Mrs. Lopez (Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez), the lively and chatty sister of Gertrude’s suitor, Mr. Solares (Daniel Mont). Mrs. Lopez lovingly pats and grooms her teen-age daughter, Federica (Toni Rae Brotons), and appears to have the healthiest relationship in the bunch. Federica is a younger version of her mother. She is coddled and happy to grow up in a family teeming with relatives, noise and spats that quickly blow over.
Things are not so simple among the non-Mexican characters. Molly is as soft and unformed as her mother is steel-spined and resolute. Gertrude views her constant criticism as “helping” her daughter leave the dream world of the summer house and gardens for real life. Instead, it pushes Molly further into herself. Terrified of change, she accepts what is in front of her face as her lot in life. She blithely trades in her mother’s house for a seafood shack called the Lobster Bowl when she drifts into marriage with Lionel (Tim Getman), a young fellow who likes Molly because she listens to half of what he’s saying.
Vivian, on the other hand, is desperate to get away from her mother. Both are high-strung and teetering on the edge of reason. Vivian sees that she is terrifyingly like her mother and is determined not to be so nervous and needy. In the end, her way of escape is extreme and final. But still, Mrs. Constable cannot let her go. The mother haunts the small town in her mourning clothes and drinks herself into smithereens.
The older women are the most interesting characters and the most interestingly acted. Miss Houston is like watching a particularly riveting car wreck as Mrs. Constable. Her demise is so absolute you want to give her some privacy but you just can’t tear your eyes away. Miss McGinn is a neurotic piece of work as Gertrude, someone who believes she is as hard and ambitious as a man and that her cutting words are the honest truth. However, as the play reveals, Gertrude’s Yankee flintiness betrays a clinginess and a bottomless well of despair.
The younger characters are not as well formed. Molly is just a malleable mess. Miss Gitenstein captures the childishness of Molly, but not much else. Miss Dillon is a lively and vivacious presence as Vivian, but playing an ideal is nearly impossible.
While the emotional resonance of Miss Bowles’ play is considerable — her capturing of the maddening, essential relationship between mother and daughter is exquisite — it is not an easy experience. You wonder if the elliptical, enigmatic quality of the scenes is because the play is a memory one, or because it is a gimmick, a response to the masculine, structure-obsessed dramas written by male playwrights in the 1950s.
Another interpretation could be that all the female characters are aspects of the playwright’s psyche and that the play’s action is a way for women to confront and integrate the different parts of themselves.
However you view it, “In the Summer House” is a deeply funny, deeply disturbing play about the competitive, push-me-pull-you dynamics between mother and daughter.
…WHAT: The Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “In the Summer House”
WHEN: Through Aug. 19, various performance dates
WHERE: 601 S. Clark St., Arlington
TICKETS: $20 to $25
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS